Generally Speaking

Angelou

Maya Angelou: A Few Words And A Poem.

 

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”.

 

Book #1

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

 

Book #2

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.

 

Still I Rise

 

 

About All That Music, And The Process Of Writing

I apologize for all the music postings the past few days.  I have had several things on my mind, and, while I’m trying to make sense of them, while I search for connections and meanings, while I wait for them to coalesce into something I can coherently write about, I listen to music.  The music soothes me, relaxes me, and frees up part of my mind, a part that lives in the back corner of my brain, that brings meaning to all my thoughts, finds patterns and connections, and presents them to me as writing ideas.

For example, the piece I wrote last week about my mom began with a commercial:

I laughed when I first saw the commercial, but, then I began to think about how this commercial, like so many others, was very stereotypical: the woman was obsessed with weight and fitting into jeans, while the man was a clueless idiot who had no idea how to respond.  Yes, ok, there’s truth to be found in stereotypes, but, commercials like this reinforce those stereotypes rather than try to change them.  Any man who’s lived with a woman for any length of time should know that if a woman calls you to tell you that something fits, the proper response needs to be enthusiastic.  I’m gay, and, other than my mother, I’ve never lived with a woman; even I would know how to respond.

Once dissed, the commercial vanished from my mind, or so I thought.  In reality, the commercial went to that back corner of my mind and took up residence.  Some time later, mom and I were sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, and on the other side of the waiting room were, I presumed, a mother and daughter.  I watched the mother, who seemed to be of the same generation as my mother, and her daughter, who, seemed to be of my generation, sitting there, talking animatedly.  They were enjoying each other’s company.  When we were called into the office, the vision of the mother and daughter vanished from my mind.  I thought.  Instead, it snuck off to that back corner, and there it met the commercial, and the two ideas began to circle each other.

I’m being vague about the time frame, as there’s not always a definite date associated with certain things, like watching a commercial, for example.  I’m not even going to swear that I saw the commercial first, then the mother and daughter.  It could have happened the other way around, but, my sense is that the commercial came first.  So we’ll go with that.  As for how much time lapsed between each thing, I cannot say for certain.  It may have been days.  Perhaps a week or so .  It may have been longer, but, I don’t think so.  My sense is that these two things happened in a reasonably close timeframe.

At some point, many days after seeing the mother and daughter, an idea from the back corner made it’s way to the front part of my mind:  write about how the communication between my mom and I was less like the mother and daughter, and more like the commercial.  It seemed like a good idea, so I returned the idea to the back corner for further aging.

The next time the idea came into the front room of my mind, there was some more substance to it: start with the commercial, talk about how it made me think of my mom and I, and give some examples of how our communication seemed to echo the tone of the commercial, and, maybe end with some thoughts about how I wondered if she’d rather have a daughter to be with her in the remaining years of her life.  Ok.  Sounded doable.

When I sat down and started to write, a couldn’t find the thread of the story.  Something usually is there, some thought, or image, or feeling that I want to create in my writing, and this something pulls my writing along.  When I can’t find the thread, I can’t write, and, that tells me that the idea isn’t quite ready, that there’s something missing. In needs to go into the back corner and ferment some more.

I’m always listening to music, but, when I’ve got something to write about, and am not finding the thread of the story, I listen to lots of music, really listen.  It goes from being something that’s always playing when I’m at my computer do other things, to being something I just sit and listen to, listen and feel.  It clears my mind, it gives me something to focus on, the words and music, and allows any thoughts I am having about my writing to float around in the back room, undisturbed.

When I finally sat down to write the latest post about my mother, I knew how I needed to present the story.  I didn’t want the communication to be the focus of the story, because in doing so, it gave a false impression of my mom.  Yes, my mom is a woman, but, she’s not the kind of woman who’d call her best friend just to say her jeans fit!  She’d be excited (as would we all, when we lose a few pounds), but she’d mention it in passing, rather than making it the main topic of the conversation.  So, I needed to present a portrait of my mom as she is, with the communication between us being more of a side note.  Then I needed to be sure that I didn’t make the communications she and I have be the focus — that can be a dangerous route to go, because a long-littany of pure emotion can easily go from being introspective to being perceived as whining and complaining.  Once all of that became clear, the thread of the story was visible, and the words flowed onto the page.  Talking about the shoes was not visible in the story thread until I got to that point, meaning the story of the shoes was nowhere in my mind until the moment I finished the previous paragraph; the idea of writing about the shoes just popped into my mind as a natural continuation of the story.  Including myself in the story of the shoes also seemed natural.  I think that it’s important to share things about myself as well.  It seems unfair to reveal all about my mom, but keep myself secret.  Writing about yourself can be daunting, because it’s tempting to only talk about yourself in a flattering way, and presenting others as flawed.  I try to include my faults and flaws, though it’s always tempting to cut those parts out.

All this to say I’m sorry for all the music, and less of the writing this week.  I’m circling around some ideas that seem to have connections, and I’ve another story to tell, yet, in both cases, the threads aren’t quite visible yet.  So, I thought I’d share the music that inspires me while I search for the threads.  The music one listens to, just like the books one reads, or the movies one loves to watch over and over, can reveal many things about the person — so, consider these music posts not just posts about random music.  Think of them as songs that inspire me.  Think of them as glimpses into my soul.

Of course, this was not the post I set out to write.  I’d thought about a short paragraph of apology and begging for your patience.  This was the result.  I’m not usually one to sit and write off the top of my head, though it’s something I feel I need to practice more.  And, what better place than a blog?  Blogs are perfect arenas for Off-The-Cuff writing.

I think the writing process is fascinating, because it’s something that varies from person to person, which, I think, is what makes it so tough to teach.  There are hundreds of books on How To Write, some are repetitions of each other, others offer new ideas to inspire your creativity.  I spent a good portion of my twenties reading lots of these books, and, feeling frustrated because most of the ideas never worked: outlines, notecards, diagrams — all to anal compulsive for my flighty right-brainedness. It took me a long time to realize that I needed to listen to these thoughts that came from that back corner, that I needed to trust myself.  That being said, I’m still fascinated by how others create their writing.  For those readers who are also writers, I’d love to hear How You Write!  Feel free to share any of your thoughts and processes in the comment section.

What’s It All About, Alfie…er, Johnny?

Beginnings. Middles. Endings.  All good stories have them.

Heck, all stories have them, good or otherwise.

My story is no different, though most of my story is taking place in The Middle.  There have been many beginnings in my life, besides the most obvious one: The Very Beginning.  And, there have been many endings in my life as well, though, as far as I can tell, I have not reached The Ultimate Ending.

This blog is both a beginning and an ending:  the beginning of a new blog, and the ending of an old blog.  I’ve written, haphazardly, for a number of years at Phases of The Noon.  It’s been a home for me on the net, a place that began as a journal of ramblings, and morphed over the years into a place to share whatever caught my fancy, as well as a personal tale or two along the way.  It’s been a place where I have collected all the flotsam and jetsam of my internet wanderings, but, “Phases” never had much of a purpose (although I did try a time or two to give it one.)  I just couldn’t find the right tone for the blog.  So, it’s time to bring “Phases” to a gentle end, though there may still be a thing or two posted there, as not everything will fit into this blog.

There is a beginning also, a new home with a purpose: Johnbalaya.  (Yes, yes, ok, for the 3 of you who paid attention, Johnbalaya was intended to be a food blog, but, I don’t think a food blog is what I need this space to be, so, the dozen-ish posts have migrated into the big unknown world called: The Garbage Bin.  They will be missed.)  I have recommissioned this blog to be the space I have always wanted, yet have held back from writing.  This is a place about me.

“Well, why the fuck would I want to read a blog about you?” (Yes, that was said in your out-loud voice)

“I’ll tell you”, I reply.  (And, gosh darn and dammit all — does that comma go on the inside or the outside of the quotation marks.  Should there be a period after “you”?)

I’ll tell you why you might want to give a fuck and give this blog a try.

Because I have stories (all true) to share: stories about caring for an 88-year old mother; stories about living with HIV for almost 23 years; stories about being a gay man; stories about losing a father when I was 14, and losing a brother not long after.  I’ve got stories about the depth and despair of depression, and stories about the simple beauty of life.  I’ve got stories about the important things, along with stories about the most mundane of things.

This is not a “poor me” blog, because I don’t believe in being “poor me.”  Life has happened, as life usually does.  It’s happened, and I’ve made choices — not all of them good, but, in the end, they were my choices, and I’ve had to live with whatever happened after: good, bad, otherwise.  Johnbalaya is not just about the stories though, it’s about the thoughts that go along with the stories, the thoughts as they happened.  There are past thoughts, thoughts about what’s happening now, and even thoughts about what’s to come.  There will even be thoughts about trying to make sense of it all, because isn’t that what most of us try to do?

I’d like to be clear that I make no claims, I have no pretensions, nor do I wish it to be thought that I think that my life has been extraordinary.  It hasn’t.  I’m no child of wealth or fame.  I’ve not survived million-to-one odds.  I’m simply a man, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and was raised by parents who aren’t all that different from yours.  I’m one story among a million others (though, I suppose I must have a bit of pretension since I am putting my story out there in hopes of it being read.)

I would also like to make it known that I will try my best to not sound like I believe that life has fucked me over.  I don’t believe that.  What I believe is that life can, and usually does, fuck with you.  In my case, any fucking over that has been done to me has been done by me.  I don’t believe I am a victim.  I am simply me.  I’ve stood up, and I’ve fallen down.  I’ve soared to the sun, and I’ve come plummeting to the ground.  I’ve been supported by people, and I’ve been hurt by them as well.  Yet, I’m not a victim of anything other than my own short-comings and impulsiveness, and my own strange, neurotic need to continually self-destruct.

The stories told herein are not in any sort of order.  They’re whatever happens to be on my mind when I sit down to write.  As I am in the hypothetical middle of my journey, I suspect that there will be more stories of the Here and Now, and, unless I suddenly develop some kind of psychic ability, there will be a shortage of stories of my future.

Finally, I would mention that there will be off-topic postings also: food (I suspect you’ll encounter more than a bit about food), music videos, the Viral Video of The Moment, a quotation, or some other oddity.  But, mostly, I’ll try not to stray too far off the beaten path.

Welcome to Johnbalaya.  Welcome to the Mind Of John.