Editorial Race

And Still She Wrote: Remembering Maya Angelou

Cynthia Greenlee

Dr. Maya Angelou’s life could not be contained by a single autobiography, so she wrote six, making the audacious claim that she—as a Black woman reared in the segregated South—was fully human and a worthy historical subject who needed no outside narrator to tell or validate her story.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dr. Maya Angelou’s life could not be contained by a single autobiography, even the critically acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

So the memoirist, who died on May 28 at age 86, wrote six.

Angelou’s multi-volume “song of herself”—to play off Whitman’s famous poem—made an audacious claim: that she, as a Black woman reared in the segregated South, was fully human and a worthy historical subject who needed no outside narrator to tell or validate her story.

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By the time I reached high school, I was intrigued with Angelou, partly because she was a professor at Wake Forest University, a short drive from my Greensboro, North Carolina, home. After hearing about Angelou sightings around my city, my sister and I always hoped for a brief glimpse of her doing mundane things like grocery shopping or getting her car oil changed.

Her legend preceded her, and though I didn’t know it yet, her renown was not merely about her memoirs, her verse, or her inimitable presence. Angelou had the rare talent of placing herself where history was bound to happen. She was featured in a European tour of the landmark musical Porgy and Bess and had a small cameo in the 1977 Roots mini-series. She worked briefly as an organizer and key fundraiser for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was prepped to collaborate with Malcolm X at the time of his death.

A calypso singer, a foremother of spoken-word poetry, a dancer, a jobless nomad who hustled her way into a Creole cooking job and an editing post in Cairo, a filmmaker, and the first female streetcar operator in San Francisco, the girl born Marguerite Johnson mastered the art of self-reinvention and became Maya Angelou, Black cosmopolitan.

Then I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in Mrs. Janis Baines’ high school English class. For me, Angelou’s writing laid bare what it was to be a Southern Black girl. I, too, had forgotten my rehearsed Easter speeches in church, lingered to hear kinfolks’ kitchen talk, and greased my legs with Vaseline.

Before her poem “Phenomenal Woman” became an anthem for Black women, Angelou had written love songs for Black girls who never saw themselves reflected in anything admirable, dainty, or remotely pretty. On the very first page of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she fantasized of a moment when she would be transformed into something other than the plain Black girl wearing a hand-me-down dress.

I was going to look like one of those sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world. Hanging softly over the black Singer sewing machine, [the dress] looked like magic, and when people saw me wearing it they were going to run up to me and say “Marguerite [sometimes it was ‘dear Marguerite’], forgive us, please, we didn’t know who you were.” And I would answer generously, “No you couldn’t have known. Of course I forgive you.”

She wouldn’t be a “too-big Negro girl with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.”

This frankness—and Angelou’s willingness to talk straightforwardly about sex and sexual abuse—earned her equal amounts of praise and disapproval. Her discussions of her childhood rape by her mother’s boyfriend and the emotionless sexual encounter that led to her becoming a teen mother made I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings one of the most banned books in the United States.

And still she wrote.

Angelou’s writing refused to apologize for not being “respectable.” She wrote candidly about her stint as a brothel manager and a sometimes prostitute in a particularly difficult time of her life. Again and again, she chronicled the struggles of motherhood, following her own loaded relationship with the mother who sent her away to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas; her separation from her son, Guy, as she made a living as a touring actress and dancer; and the labors of women on welfare and anonymous working mothers like the one in “Woman Work”:

I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to week
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

This poem sags with fatigue, but Angelou pursued joy aggressively. And as she is being memorialized across the world, I see one picture repeatedly: a black-and-white image of her dancing with (also recently deceased) poet Amiri Baraka at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. Angelou’s face bears the pleasurable grimace of a dancer hard at work (or werk, in today’s lingo) and Baraka is bowed down to the rhythm, holding Angelou’s hand in his left hand and his right fingers frozen in an eternal snap. I imagine that there will be a second round of shimmying somewhere in the literary heavens.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Human Rights

Remaining Charges Dropped Against Officers in Freddie Gray Case

Michelle D. Anderson

Gray, who was Black, died of a neck injury a week after being taken into police custody in April 2015. The 25-year-old’s death led to widespread protest and civil disobedience against racial injustice and a number of reforms in Baltimore and across Maryland.

Three Baltimore Police Department officers charged in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray will not go to trial as originally planned.

Chief Deputy State Attorney Michael Schatzow of the Baltimore City State Attorney’s Office said during a court hearing Wednesday that his office would not prosecute Officer Garrett Miller and Sgt. Alicia White or attempt to retry Officer William Porter, whose case ended in a mistrial in December.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had charged Miller, White, and Porter, along with Officer Edward Nero, Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., and Lt. Brian Rice, in Gray’s May 2015 death in police custody.

The officers faced an array of charges, ranging from second-degree depraved-heart murder and reckless endangerment to second-degree assault and involuntary manslaughter.

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All of the officers pleaded not guilty.

Judge Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams acquitted Nero, Goodson, and Rice during bench trials that ended in May, June, and July, respectively. Miller’s trial was set to begin Wednesday; White, October 13, and Porter, September 6.

Gray, who was Black, died of a neck injury a week after being taken into police custody in April 2015. The 25-year-old’s death led to widespread protest and civil disobedience against racial injustice and a number of reforms in Baltimore and across Maryland.

Mosby, in filing charges against the officers, attempted to hold law enforcement accountable for failing to secure Gray in a seat belt after transporting him in a police van following his arrest, among other alleged negligent acts. Prosecutors charged that Gray was illegally detained before police officers found a knife in his pocket.

Mosby stood by her decision to bring charges against the six officers during a brief press conference held near the Gilmor Homes public housing project, where Gray was taken into police custody.

“We stand by the medical examiners determination that Freddie Gray’s death was a homicide,” Mosby said.

She touted her team’s success during the trials, including an appellate court victory that led some officers to testify against one another and asserted that a summary judgment was among many reasons she had “legitimate reasons” to pursue criminal charges.

Mosby praised the reforms that had come over the past year, including a new “use of force” policy Baltimore police instituted this year. The new policy emphasizes de-escalation and accountability. It marks the first rewrite of the policy since 2003.

“For those that believe I am anti-police, that’s simply not the case. I am anti-police brutality,” Mosby said.

The conference was the first time Mosby had spoken in months, since a gag order imposed by Williams had kept prosecution and defense alike from commenting on the police trials.

The decision to drop charges stemmed from “an apparent acknowledgement” that convictions were unlikely for the remaining officers, the Baltimore Sun reported.

This was because the prosecution would face major challenges during Miller’s trial since they wouldn’t be able to use anything he said on the witness stand during Nero’s trial in an attempt to convict him. Miller had spoken during Nero’s trial in an immunized testimony and with protections against self incrimination, the Sun reported.

Williams said in previous trials that prosecutors failed to show sufficient evidence to support their stance that the officers acted recklessly and caused Gray’s death. He said prosecutors wanted him to rely on “presumptions or assumptions” and rejected the notion that police intentionally gave Gray a “rough ride” in the police vehicle, according to numerous news reports.

The decision to drop charges drew criticism from many activists and citizens alike, but drew praise from the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 union, which had repeatedly urged the prosecution to drop charges.

Baltimore Bloc, a local grassroots group, said in a statement this spring that Mosby should be removed from office for failing to secure convictions against officers and continued to criticize her on Twitter after the announcement that charges would be dropped.