Maya Angelou’s death, this year, on May 28th 2014, never really struck me deep. At that point in time, earlier this year, her name was one among many authors and poets that I had heard in passing, acknowledged but never really took the time to know of. So when it was informed, only three words passed through my mind: “That’s a pity.” And life went on.
It was not until recently that I began reading her novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I chose to read it (and am still reading it) because I thought it was a nice transition from when I previously read the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Like the protagonist in Speak, Marguerite Johnson in Angelou’s novel deals with selective mutism.
And, because I’m reading it (excruciatingly slowly), last week I came across a particular paragraph from the novel that really struck me. In the novel, the young protagonist is made to go to a funeral of a Mrs. Florida Taylor. It begins (and captures my attention) at these lines:
At first the news that Mrs. Taylor was dead did not strike me as particularly newsy bit of information. As children do, I thought that since she was very old she had only one thing to do, and that was to die.
At this point in the story, I felt guilty as these words somehow resonated to me about anyone who was elderly – that the next predictable destination was death and that there was nothing to it.
Angelou then writes this:
The inevitable destination of all living things seemed but a short step away. I had never considered before that dying, death, dead, passed away, were words and phrases that might be even faintly connected with me.
But, on that onerous day, oppressed beyond relief, my own mortality was borne in upon me on sluggish tides of doom.
It felt – and I can’t quite summon the perfect adjective to describe it – unnerving reading these words, especially from an author who had only recently married herself to those terms “dying, death, dead, [and] passed away” … I sat there reading those words as if Angelou spoke to me from those pages. (And this is me reflecting on how words are as though we time travel both to the future where we no longer exist as authors and to the past to have conversations with the dead.)
I reflected on how, writing those words, Angelou never fully pictured herself gone from this earth and the words on the page speaking on her behalf. And I imagined the same of myself – how right now I can’t imagine those words connected to myself but inevitably they will be.
(Well, aren’t we funny creatures to so vehemently – my new favourite adverb – protest and proclaim the impossibility of our deaths … until we are dead and gone?)
When I read those words on my bed I almost teared. I felt as though the tides had turned, that I was Marguerite Johnson attending the funeral of Mrs. Taylor.
And personally, I feel like now’s better late then never to thank Maya Angelou for her poetic words and for her accomplishments and milestones in literature as a “Phenomenal Woman”.
I only wish I had read and known you sooner. Reading your novel now, I feel as though I relate to you in a million small insignificant yet all too significant ways. And so I quote one of your recent passages that plucked my heart out of its chest while I was reading on the bus earlier; while it was directed for the black community, I feel like anyone who has felt in the position of the minority can share the sentiments written in your words …
It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. A pyramid of flesh with whitefolks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks and spirituals sticking out of their mouths. The Dutch children should all stumble in their wooden shoes and break their necks. The French should choke to death on the Louisiana Purchase (1803) while silkworms ate all the Chinese with their stupid pigtails. As a species, we were an abomination. All of us.
Till next time.
P.S. Looking through her photos on Google Image search and writing these words almost did make me cry. This is my personal belated mourning of a marvellous woman – but hopefully it is more heartfelt to have gotten to know her through the pages of her book and then said goodbye than to have said words that only now I realise I truly mean from deep down within my heart (and may I add, soul).