Gone too soon: Dr. Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

We interrupt these brain droppings to bring you important news:

Marguerite Ann Johnson, better known as Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned poet and champion of (black) female empowerment, joined the ancestors today. She was 86 years old.

For some, Maya Angelou was just a name. For others such as myself, who grew up hearing her rich, baritone voice ooze like molasses with her slow, deliberate cadence, she was a legend. Her book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was instant vintage, and an inspiration to me. Like Angelou, I was the victim of sexual assault at a young age. Like Angelou, I grew up in a southern town where black people were still, to a degree, seen as inferior. Like Angelou, I discovered an essential part of myself when I moved to San Francisco (twice!). And like Angelou, I used words to make sense of my world.

Her poems were life-affirming, especially to a black girl who was constantly bombarded by messages that she wasn’t enough. She saw all aspects of the human condition and used her words to seek understanding, rather than judgment.

There will be countless obituaries for Dr. Angelou, and the accolades will be well deserved and more eloquent than what is written here. I can only say what she meant to me, and for giving this black girl a boost of fortitude to make it through, I salute her. Rise to Paradise, Dr. Angelou. See you at the crossroads.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems by Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise.” Thanks for stopping by.

 

STILL I RISE

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.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

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.

–Maya Angelou

 

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Telling it all (but not really): My Thoughts on Celebrity Memoirs

I recently read two celebrity memoirs that were decent, but didn’t make me squeal with joy. They are Unbreak My Heart by Toni Braxton and Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland.

 

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In both, each woman gave an account of her rise to stardom from not necessarily stellar beginnings: Braxton from a religious family of eight in Maryland, and Copeland from a fractured background in both Missouri and California. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past few decades, Toni Braxton is a platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning singer best known for the hits “Unbreak My Heart”, “He Wasn’t Man Enough”, and “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” (the latter from the Boomerang soundtrack). Misty Copeland is a professional ballerina who is the first black soloist for the American Ballet Theatre in over 20 years.

Copeland’s memoir was more comprehensive, getting into her unconventional (and yes, unlikely) path to being not just a soloist at ABT, but a ballerina, period. Braxton’s autobiography, however, was not much of a revelation. I blame this due to the popularity of her reality show with her sisters, Braxton Family Values. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Braxton has divulged most of the details that are in her memoir, so reading it was rather anticlimactic. The memoir served more for providing clarity on what she shared in the TV show, than learning anything truly new.

In both books, there seemed to be a lack of a ghostwriter (or if there were ghostwriters, not very good ones). In a way, that’s good, as each author seems smart and capable enough to pen a book on her own, without significant help. The downside is that the books don’t flow as smoothly as they should; this is especially true of Copeland’s book, which jumped back and forth between the time periods in her life; this may work in a spoken conversation, but it doesn’t translate well in a written fashion.

I was bummed because I was expecting more of…something from these books, especially because I was so looking forward to reading them.  Perhaps this is a result of this age of reality TV and social media (over)saturation: the wanting of more, more, more and everything, everything, everything from celebrities. Indeed, I came away from the books knowing more about Copeland’s life, but it was a more superficial knowledge. This is understandable, given that celebrities deserve privacy too (though privacy is the antithesis of being a celebrity). Still, I wanted to learn more about Misty Copeland on a deeper level, and the book was so heavy on her world of ballet that I didn’t get that. With Braxton, I am a fan of Braxton Family Values (or I was for the first two seasons; I’m not digging season 3), so I was hoping to see more behind the curtain of Toni Braxton that was not revealed on the show. Alas, I was disappointed.

I still would suggest the books for anyone to read, and maybe I’m just strange for wanting a deeper connection with the words I read on a page. However, if you’re looking for an old-school style of biography, it’s best to look elsewhere. Thanks for stopping by.