I have a friend who’s been posting pictures of Maya Angelou’s stoop-turned-memorial, just up the street from her own home in Harlem. A wreath of white peonies. Stacks of single roses wrapped in cellophane, all snug in baby’s breath.
On the day Angelou died, Facebook and Twitter blew up with RIPs and reflections about the lost literary icon. Many people my age and older remember her poem “Still I Rise,” commissioned by Clinton for his 1993 inauguration. A lot of us read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in school. I know I was struck by Angelou’s candor, especially when she details her sexual abuse. Her openness embroiled me in the embarrassment she felt as a child and the ways she overcame it. I felt like an intruder, but also like the memoir’s gut-wrenching honesty was permission to enter the space of her body and mind — like she welcomed me.
I find it odd that some people are taking the occasion of her death as an opportunity to express how they didn’t care for her work. On Facebook, a man said he found her poetry “frequently platitudinous and gaseous.” I’ve read things like, “She seemed like a great person but I hated what she wrote. Let me tell you why [in roughly three paragraphs]…”
Perhaps Angelou would have welcomed this, too. Perhaps she would be pleased that her passing has opened up discussions of her work and its central issues of gender and race.
How this conversation has turned into talk of how and why obituaries aren’t mentioning Angelou’s experiences as a prostitute and pimp, what the Huffington Post is calling “the erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History,” baffles me. If it surprises you that obituary writers aren’t detailing this part of her life, you clearly haven’t read many obituaries. The media isn’t actively trying to hide anything. They’re not keeping a woman down, stripping her of her strength and independence and fortitude. They aren’t chastising Angelou because she chronicled these experiences in her book, Gather Together in My Name, without a moment of self-pity or shame.
This isn’t about The Man.
Of course, if people want to judge her or the newspapers writing about her, they certainly have the right to do so. They can say things like, “I guess she wasn’t a great person,” or “This just sullies work I already hated.” Everyone is entitled to their opinions. Everyone can decide whether or not to air those opinions. Here I am, airing mine.
I’m not one for sanctifying or denigrating the dead — at least I try not to. I’m not attempting to do so here. I didn’t know her. And I hesitate to say we share a black experience or black female experience no matter how much her candid work convinced me that I could relate. What if we all let her lie in repose, just for a bit? You can look if you want. You can leave flowers if you want. If you don’t, that’s fine, too.
I’m sure even a writer like Angelou knew sometimes words aren’t warranted.