When I heard the news that Maya Angelou had died, I thought that I would write a small “farewell” blog post. However, before I had the chance to write, I saw many tributes on television, social media, and statements issued by her friends and loved ones. After all the tributes, I realized that I could not add anything more eloquent than the things that had already been said. So, I said a silent farewell to her spirit and went on my way.
The next day, after hearing more tributes, I began to think about how little I knew about Dr. Maya Angelou. Having spent a decade working for a bookstore, I was familiar with her books, though I had not read many of them. I did not watch Oprah, but I had seen a few clips of her conversations with Ms. Winfrey. What I knew of Maya Angelou was mostly from sound bytes from her appearances on various television shows, as well as the little I knew from reading her first two memoirs and some of her poetry. Watching and reading the tributes informed me that she had worked with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. I saw clips of some of her more politically charged dialogues. I had no idea that she was such an activist. Oh, I knew she spoke about equality for all, spoke out against poverty and injustice. Yet I had not realized she was as engaged as she was. This revelation was not surprising to me. It was simply information I had not known, and it left me wanting to know more. As a reader, I thought it might be good to read more volumes of her autobiographies, so I pointed my browser towards Amazon, and started investigating.
What I discovered there was quite fascinating. Apparently, according to some customer reviews, Angelou’s poetry is described this way: simple, trite, drivel, not real poetry. Of course, this is nothing new in the world of poetry. There has been a debate for more than a century about how to define good poetry. Some of the most famous poets are criticized for being too simplistic; the word accessible is thrown around in a derogatory way. The few poor reviews of her poems were not surprising. My own studies in the world of poetry and literature have taught me that the more popular someone is, the more criticism there is of their literary merits.
What was most interesting, however, were the negative reviews of Angelou’s first, and most famous, volume of autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Normally I stay out of the comment sections of news and other articles because of the often silly arguments that break out, but when I am looking at buying a book, I like to look at the negative reviews. Sometimes the negative reviews are simply about the quality of the binding or paper; sometimes, with eBooks, the worst criticisms are because the book contains a great many typos. Yet, sometimes there are some well thought out critical responses, and those are the ones that interest me.
I found the customer reviews of Angelou’s famous book to be rather…interesting. A good number of them can be easily discounted, as they say something like this: “I had to read this for ninth grade English. Boring. Wasn’t relevant.” I think it is reasonable to say that most of what we find relevant as a young teenager is (hopefully) very different from what we’d find relevant at twenty, or forty. The point is that many of the 1-star reviews can be read for what they are: a teenager who does not want to read a book for class. (I am not saying that a teenager can’t write an honestly critical review, but, in the case of this book, most of the reviews that mention having to read the book for school aren’t necessarily reviews in the strictest sense of the word.)
The rest of the reviews fall into two categories. The first category is made up of those who were disapproving of the fact that Angelou described being raped; talked about being a prostitute; and had a baby out-of-wedlock. One woman said that she read the book before her kids, and refuses to let them read about rape and teen prostitution because she is “raising her kids right.” It is not as if Angelou chose to be raped. Yes, Angelou’s description of it is graphic, but then so is rape. And, it seems that the context of the prostitution is missed: as a young African-American in a very rural area of the Jim Crow South in the 1930s and 1940s, there were very few ways a young woman could make money.(Many of the 1-star reviewers seem to not realize the time and place in which Angelou’s story takes place. Nor are they sympathetic to the fact that she is talking about herself as a teenager.) Out of curiosity, I clicked on “see my other reviews” for the woman who was “raising her kids right”, and her 5 star book reviews are for (surprise) a Rush Limbaugh book, and several books by a new age author who writes about bringing back the Pagan ways of witchcraft. One book, Ancient Ways: Bringing Back Pagan Traditions, has this description:
Filled with magic and ritual that you can perform every day to capture the spirit of the seasons. Focuses on the celebration of the Sabbats of the Old Religion by giving you practical things to do while anticipating the sabbat rites, and helping you harness the magical energy for weeks afterward. Learn how to look into your previous lives at Yule…at Beltane, discover where you are most likely to see faeries…and more!
Clearly, teaching your children about real witches and faeries is better than letting them read about rape.
Which brings me to the second type of negative review, that can be summed up by the following review heading: “Reverse Racism!” The fact that Angelou speaks of whites in a non-groveling, non-worshipful tone seems to mean she is racist. Again: context, time, and place are important to remember. The negative reviewers complain that she talks too much about how tough it was (we know it was tough, and we are tired of hearing about it, claims one reviewer).
Another reviewer uses this lovely sentence “If I want to be racially insulted by blacks I will drive thru their neighborhoods or watch network TV.”
Another claims that the only good thing the book can be used for is “toilet paper.”
Another reviewer asks: “Why did a former Methodist school, Wake Forest University allow a former prostitute/Madame to become a tenured Professor? Two words: African-American.” This reviewer, who at the end of her review calls on parents to call the PTA and school principal to complain loudly if their children are given this smut to read. She thinks that tenth graders are too young to be reading this book (certainly a parent’s right), but her reasoning is this:
These 10th graders are not old enough to watch an “R” rated movie but they can read about Maya seducing her 16 year friend into having unprotected sex and then getting pregnant and having to raise the child alone. No thank you former Sex Worker/Madame/University Professor. No wonder the unwanted child pregnancies are so high in this country. If they read Maya’s novel they understand good can stem from something bad eventually and so they have more unprotected sex and have more welfare babies.
Seemingly Maya Angelou is responsible for teen pregnancy and welfare babies. The ironicness of a parent screeching about raising your kids responsibly, and that part of a parent’s duty is educating them about not having unprotected sex seems to be lost on her. It is easier to blame Angelou for children not having safe sex. This reviewer then throws this in to make some sort of point:
I am going to describe two books: One is “Playboy’s Erotic Stories” and the other is “Why Does the Caged Bird Sing”.
1) Graphic details of child rape
2) Graphic details of author seducing another underaged minor into sex and descriptions of the actual sex that followed.
3) Permissive attitude toward Teen Pregnancy
1) Graphic details of sex between adults
2) Graphic details of adult seducing another adult into sex.
Upon first glance, you would think Maya’s book would be Book#2 because how could teen sex, unwanted teen pregnancy, and rape be in a book issued to 10th graders in Public Schools and made required reading.
In fact, her book is #1 above. I would almost prefer they allow the smut between consenting adults rather than her trash.
Again, as a parent, being involved in your child’s education, and determining what they should or should not be exposed to is certainly your right. What I find fascinating about this example is that in all of the comments left in reply to her review no one asked the obvious question: if you’re so morally righteous, how is it that you know the details of Playboy’s Erotic Stories? And reading about someone’s brutal rape crosses a line that Playboy does not? Made up pornographic stories are ok, but a real story about a real rape is trash? And we wonder why we have politicians talking about real rape and legitimate rape?
Now, I am making an assumption, but this reviewer, who lists herself as ‘from the south’ is probably anti-abortion as well. Rather than thinking it a good thing that a teenaged Angelou had her baby and did not abort it, she instead holds Angelou up as a role model for welfare babies.
Not all of the negative reviews are of the low-quality mentioned above. Some raise legitimate concerns – should ninth and tenth graders be reading about rape and prostitution — it is a valid parenting argument. I am not a parent, so I cannot really argue for or against, but it seems a reasonable discussion to have, though the argument is not always presented in such a reasonable way. “Smut” is used several times to describe how Angelou talks about her rape (the lack of condemnation for her rapist, or any sympathy for Angelou as a victim of rape, is noticeably absent). Others discuss the writing style, the fact that the book is not a cohesive, chronological narrative (which is, I think, valid; I think the book is more a collection of autobiographical essays, and should be called such – knowing that the book jumps around and isn’t chronological before you start reading it could help clarify some of the confusion people mention.)
I cannot say that I was startled to find such comments. Delve into the comments of any memoir or autobiography of anyone who is “different” and you will find comments in the same vein. The vitriol is not exclusive to Angelou’s book. And Angelou, like the rest of us, is fallible. None of us is above criticism. It is interesting, however, to look at the language we use when we criticize people. There are valid criticisms to be made about all of us; the words we use to make the criticisms are what is most telling.
And, let’s not forget: criticism of a book should not be an assassination of an author’s character. If you’re going to rant about the author’s character, write a blog post, or write an article for publication. Degrading someone’s character (and actions) based on things that happened when they were a teenager and then trying to disguise your degrading remarks as a “book review” only adds to your silliness.
To clear the bitter taste from my mouth I needed to read a good many of the 5-star customer reviews, and my faith in humanity was restored. Many people understand why this book is important. While I was watching various tributes to Angelou’s life, I heard this quote that I think sums up why so many people find this book (all her books and poetry) so important. The quote comes from someone who is no stranger to controversy, the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Sharpton’s segment gives some biographical details of Angelou’s life. He ends the segment with this:
I read her book very young, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I was inspired by it. I was inspired by her poem, Still I Rise. You’d have to have been a bird in a cage to understand the meaning. You’d have to have been knocked down to know what rising really means.
Maya knew it and expressed it for all of us.
Angelou’s poems, Still I Rise, as well as many of her other poems, are written in her voice. Poems are often open for interpretation. My reading of a poem, and your reading of a poem may be different – our readings may even be different from how the poet would read it. That is part of the beauty of poetry (of most writing, really). Yet, much of Angelou’s poetry is part of that breed of poems that really should be read/performed by the author. Slam Poetry, for example, is much more author specific in its interpretations.
Angelou had one of the most distinctive voices I have ever heard. There was no mistaking her voice and speech patterns for anyone else. That’s why I think it is important to hear Angelou read her own poems – trying to read them on your own doesn’t do them justice.
Take her poem, Still I Rise. The words are below. Read the words yourself – silently, or out loud. Then, listen to Angelou’s reading in the video that follows the poem. It becomes so much greater, so much more meaningful when you listen to her perform her words.
Farewell, Dr. Angelou. You’ll always be a rainbow in the clouds.