Maya Angelou’s inspiring legacy of resilience

By Murphy Browne Wednesday June 04 2014 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)


You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.


Excerpt from And Still I Rise, published 1978 by Maya Angelou.

 

Maya Angelou, actor, author, calypsonian, journalist, poet and writer, was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri and transitioned on May 28, 2014 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

 

Angelou is best known for her inspiring poetry, including Caged Bird, And Still I Rise, Phenomenal Woman and Equality. And then there is Coleridge Jackson, a poem that Angelou wrote which describes the devastating effects of White supremacy on an African-American family.

 

Angelou’s extraordinary life is chronicled/detailed in seven autobiographies beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969 and ending with Mom & Me & Mom, published in 2013 when Angelou was 85-years-old.

 

What is not as well-known is her writing and singing calypso as a young woman before she became a famous author/poet. In 1957, Angelou recorded a calypso album, Miss Calypso, and she also sang and danced to calypso music in a movie which was filmed on one of Columbia Pictures’ soundstages decorated to give the appearance of a Caribbean island.

 

The movie Calypso Heat Wave features Angelou as “Miss Calypso”, a name she used during her musical performances when she sang calypso. In her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, published in 1974, Angelou wrote about the role of music in her life: “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”

 

In her third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, published in 1976, Angelou details her days of performing on stage as she made her living singing and dancing.

 

It is not surprising that Angelou was attracted to calypso music because her maternal grandfather was Trinidadian. In her seventh autobiography, Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou wrote about her mother’s father: “Her father, a Trinidadian with a heavy Caribbean accent had jumped from a banana boat in Tampa, Florida and evaded immigration agents successfully all his life.”

 

Angelou acknowledged the interconnectedness of Africans in the Diaspora when she spoke with African Trinidadian journalist Renee Cummings during an interview published in the Trinidad Express newspaper: “West Indians and African-Americans are more alike than we are different. Culturally, we also share the same experience; the way we use music, literature and lyrics; and that feeling for family is very tight in African-American and Caribbean communities. We both love telling these long tales with no documents to back them up. The Black man in the Caribbean and in America has had to fight, every step of the way, for his own dignity.”

 

In 1957, when Angelou was performing calypso in American clubs, the genre was enjoying great popularity. In the Spring 2004 edition of the Institute for Studies in American Music newsletter, White American professor, Stephen Stuempfle, under the heading “Documenting Calypso in New York and the Atlantic World” described this “calypso craze” that swept through the U.S. in the 1950s:

 

“During the calypso craze, numerous nightclubs in cities across the U.S. shifted to an all-calypso format. Among the best-known venues were the Calypso Room and Le Cupidon in New York, the Blue Angel in Chicago, and the Malayan Lounge in Miami. Typically, calypso clubs created an imaginary Caribbean atmosphere with fishnets, palm fronds, and other trappings. Performers often wore straw hats and striped and floral outfits, unlike the dress suits worn by calypsonians in Trinidad. Among the many artists who worked the clubs were Lord Flea, Calypso Eddie, the dance team of Scoogie Brown and Leo Ryers, and the singer Maya Angelou, before embarking on a literary career. In spring 1957 Angelou and Flea appeared in Caribbean Calypso Festival, a short-lived revue produced by Trinidadian dancer/painter Geoffrey Holder at Loew’s Metropolitan Theatre in Brooklyn. The show also featured Latin bandleader/percussionist Tito Puente and Lord Kitchener, a top Trinidadian calypsonian based in England.”

 

Maya Angelou, as a calypsonian, was honouring her African ancestry like generations of Africans in the Diaspora who used music and words like the storytelling/historian griots of Africa. Her writing describing her experiences living in a White supremacist culture, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was an extension of her talent as a storyteller.

 

In his 1972 book, The Trinidad Carnival, African Trinidadian Errol Gaston Hill wrote: “The antecedents of the calypso were the praise songs and songs of derision of West African natives captured as slaves and brought to the West Indies.”

 

African Trinidadian historian, Dr. Hollis Urban Lester “Chalkdust” Liverpool, in his 2001 published Rituals of Power & Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad & Tobago, 1763-1962, expands on this as he compares the calypsonians to the griots of Africa: “The history of the griot tradition show that in West Africa, in all the areas from which the enslaved Africans in Trinidad were taken, griots as praise singers and storytellers can be found. Among the Africans enslaved in Trinidad, there were inevitably many praise singing griots whose main role it was to praise and deride their leaders in their homelands during official ceremonies and masquerades.”

 

As we celebrate another Black Music Month it is important to remember that our music began on the African continent with the drums, the poets, the griots, etc., before those sounds were transported on the slave ships with our enslaved ancestors. Since then we have been improvising and giving voice to our joys and sorrows in whatever language our enslavers and oppressors forced on us.

 

Africans have revolutionized the music and language of the world. Dr. Maya Angelou, from humble beginnings, overcame adversities that would have destroyed a lesser woman and she contributed to the literary genre with seven autobiographies and other inspirational writing, including more than 100 poems. Truly she was a “Phenomenal Woman” who was confident in her skin even though she was “not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size”.

Angelou’s life mirrored her poem, And Still I Rise, where she wrote:

 

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.


tiakoma@hotmail.com

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