On Saturday Maya Angelou’s homegoing will offer a chance to reflect on one of the less-often discussed aspects of her panoramic legacy: that of a radical political intellectual who indelibly shaped the times she lived in.
The wealth of memorials and tributes honoring Angelou in the aftermath of her May 28 passing have acknowledged the breadth of her improbable life’s journey from humble origins to best-selling author and admired professor.
The many remembrances speak to her cultural power and influence. Yet by portraying her more as an everyday woman who felt deeply—rather than as an influential thinker, writer and poet capable of presenting complex ideas in accessible prose—we disrespect what is perhaps Angelou’s most powerful legacy.
Angelou should be remembered as an organic intellectual, a black woman who grew up in poverty but refused to be defined by the litany of horrific experiences that indelibly shaped her life.
Writing saved Angelou’s life. Her six autobiographies covered her early childhood into early middle age, a time span that found her in the thick of global civil rights struggles. An Afrocentric pioneer who wore natural hair before it became fashionable, and who spent extended time in Africa before the black power movement became mainstream, she had her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published the year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The book became a sensation and started Angelou on her way to becoming a literary icon. Yet fame carried a cost. While critics applauded Angelou for exploring the hidden world of black women, whose lives were not usually the subject of literary exploration, the intellectual merits of her work were casually dismissed. To add insult to injury, over the years Angelou was unfairly compared with Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate for literature whose imaginative novels and essays hewed more closely to academic-styled cultural and literary critics.
But make no mistake: Angelou should be remembered as a brilliant intellectual. She had, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, a gift for the ordinary rhythms, style and folkways of poor African Americans. Through her autobiographical literary reconstruction, Angelou innovated a whole genre of writing that elevated the experiences of struggling black women to the realm of serious nonfiction.
Contrary to what some critics might assume, this is not easy. The thankless task of giving voice to the pain, anger, misery, joy and heartbreak of black women left out of even mainstream black literature fell to Angelou. In the process, she inspired millions of black women in America and women of color around the world.
The thankless task of giving voice to the pain, anger, misery, joy and heartbreak of black women left out of even mainstream black literature fell to Angelou.
Oprah Winfrey is perhaps the most notable black woman to publicly acknowledge Angelou’s outsized influence. Winfrey’s public embrace of Angelou helped introduce her work to a new generation and symbolically linked two generations of black women who overcame significant challenges on their way to becoming icons in entertainment and business. As with Angelou, Winfrey’s intellectual brilliance as a businesswoman, philanthropist and entrepreneur has been underappreciated in favor of a narrative that extolls Oprah’s unique ability to “relate” to women and people from diverse backgrounds.
In other words, it’s easier to acknowledge black women’s uncanny ability to thrive in the face of enormous obstacles than to give them credit for engaging in the complicated and time-consuming task of devising strategies of liberation.
Angelou’s evolving public persona after the heyday of the civil rights era attests to numerous strategic decisions on her part concerning how to portray her past, create new political alliances and offer her biography as a universal blueprint of political resolve in the face of daunting challenges.
Angelou made it look too easy. Her evocative depictions of a childhood scarred by rape, as well as an adulthood marked by disappointment, marriages, single parenthood and political friendships with James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., were self-conscious literary creations. Importantly and purposefully, they placed a black woman at the center of these stories. Readers came to recognize and, most important, trust not only Angelou’s personal subjective narration but also her role as a tour guide through some of the civil rights movement’s most important and controversial episodes.
Angelou’s greatest legacy may be the ability to convey the multiple dimensions of black women’s personal and professional ambitions in a manner so conversational and straightforward—Malcolm X taught all of us, after all, to “make it plain”—that both supporters and critics have, even while honoring her, ignored the deep intellectual force and ability that made such a feat possible.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the recently released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.