Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Maya Angelou at Montana State University, or, What Colors are Your Rainbows?

Photo Credit: Sean Sperry, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Though I've been looking forward to Maya Angelou's visit to Montana State University since I moved to Bozeman back in August, I almost didn't go last night, even though I had a coveted ticket. Yesterday was a very sad day. I learned, upon waking, of a shooting of teenagers on a corner that is very dear to me on Chicago's North Side. Only a little while later, I heard the news of a dear grandmother of that same corner-loving congregation gone missing and discovered with no life left in her precious body.

More than a thousand miles away, I mourned, feeling so far away, so burdened by this sorrow. I prayed as I could. All day long I cast about for ways to support. I wrote letters. I sat and wondered. I simmered brown rice and sauteed vegetables with ginger out of a desperate need to make something whole and good, and then I ate a plateful in silence. I thought about sitting in the dark apartment until Josh came home from work, the sorrow bearing down on my bones.

But I decided to go. As the beloved community of Chicago gathered for a prayer vigil on the corner, I squared my shoulders, picked up my bag, and marched the mile to campus with burning eyes. I smelled neighbors' laundry drying and dinners cooking, heard a father gently correcting his young son and guitars played behind open windows, watched various citizens of the Gallatin Valley converge on the field house--students, faculty, families, retirees. I joined more than 3,000 people streaming into the dim space, where I sat full of my own complicated anonymity.

Dr. Angelou's visit was a big deal for this community, for this university. It was a precious gift. I was proud of the turnout, too. But I'm not going to lie: I felt a little uncomfortable at the accolades students and the college president piled on the writer-activist-wise-woman. Again and again, they spoke of her "inspiration to us all," her example of rising above one's challenges, achieving, succeeding. They did not speak much of her gender. They especially did not speak much of her race. Indeed, race--in a room overwhelmingly populated by white people--felt like an elephant, unnamed. As the introductions wore on, and even as Dr. Angelou's talk began, I was increasingly fidgety: was this all a color-blind, particular-injustice-blind, feel-good affair to encourage middle-class westerners to work hard for their dreams? Really? Was this wise elder playing along with the dominant urge to generalize, to sweep important histories and differences under the rug?

If you read today's news coverage of the event, then yes, really. Angelou did, as numerous news sources are reporting it, "urge" her audience to "find rainbows in the clouds," or to "inspire and be inspired by others"; as I have said, the rhetoric of "inspiration" was overwhelming present. But inspiration for what?

Angelou did riff beautifully on the 19th-century gospel image of God putting a rainbow in the cloud, calling her listeners to find and acknowledge those who are their rainbows, providing hope and guidance, and to be brighter rainbows, themselves. But the core of her lecture, which took a while to arrive, has not appeared in any of the news stories I've read today: Angelou did not simply advocate that her audience find whichever rainbows-in-the-clouds might inspire them to live good lives. Instead, she advocated specifically for a certain group of rainbows that many members of this particular audience has likely overlooked. She asked that they--that we--read black poets, suggesting that such poets were a desperately needed and woefully absent source of challenge and guidance.

This turn in the talk came, to me, as a blessed relief, even as it brought a new discomfort. Angelou introduced her point with a great deal of humor, but there was also a sharpness to it. She was naming a lack, a lack borne of injustice. She said--and here I quote and paraphrase from my notes, scrawled in the dark--"I know you're all way north and west and so you don't know a lot about African Americans." (And here there was a bout of hearty and perhaps surprised laughter from the crowd.) "But I want you to go to the librarian ..." and "say Ms. Angelou sent us to find African American poetry to read." Here, she offered a delightful sketch of how surprised the librarian would be to have any such request (or perhaps any request for literature at all). The next lines, to my mind, were some of the most devastating: she asserted that the librarian would have to search throughout the libraries of the entire state of Montana, and perhaps even into Idaho, to find such poetry.

I wondered about the laughter that followed this jibe. The MSU libraries do, of course, hold books by and about African American writers. But her point was clear: she was speaking to a group, to a place, that has been conveniently removed from some of the nastier elements of the nation's twisted history of race relations but nevertheless affected by them and even benefiting from privileges as a result of them. She was speaking to a group, to a place, that could easily continue to overlook the complexity of race and class, the important contributions of people of color and their particular claims on the public imagination. Hers was a challenge: "You need to know that you have missed out," she said. "You need to know a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar," she asserted, and went on to quote it. "I wrote this piece and I want you to have it," she insisted, before ending with her own beautiful poem written for the United Nations' 50th anniversary.

Angelou did not only speak of race and African American poets; she also read her 1983 poem about being a carnivorous smoker in a health-food diner, and Edna St Vincent Millay's 1931 "Conscientious Objector," which she offered as a poem of courage (though the poem does allude to injustices in other countries and in the rural south). But the most profound contribution of her lecture was her acute awareness of her audience, the implied critique of a blind spot and answering gift of the musical and challenging words of poets. In performing these poems aloud, Angelou, I hope (and I believe she hoped), opened up in her listeners a deep desire for more. She did not say this explicitly, but as I stood with the audience to applaud her at the lecture's end, I sensed that Dr. Angelou had made an incisive and important point: not only that we all must find--and acknowledge--rainbows, "he-roes and she-roes" to spur us on, but that which rainbows we found mattered a great deal, that missing out on certain rainbows, certain challengers to our status quo view of the world, was to our detriment, dimming our own shining.

I wish the reporters who covered this event had narrated that uncomfortable and inspiring insight.

I am writing about this, myself, at some length because it seems terribly apropos, and not just because I study women writers of color. Walking home in the dark last night, I felt that significance. It was a little after nine, but--unlike this boy in Chicago who also walked home alone a little after nine last night--I had little to worry about. Place, and class, and race, and history--these particularities factor into our vulnerability, into our places within systems of privilege and (in)justice.

This is the difficult dynamic that I am struggling with in my doctoral writing, the difficult dynamic that I struggle with in my faith and my life: on the one hand, we must take the risk of generalizing, if we are to have ethics or theories or theology. An African American woman's wisdom, or a Hispanic boy's experience, can speak just as much to my humanity and yours as a white man's. This has been a hard-earned claim over the past five decades of liberation activism. We are united in our frailty, tied together in our fragility, in our human desiring and breathing and living towards death, and we are united in other ways, in beauty and in love and the longing for relationship. But we are also different, and to overlook those differences can mean erasing certain stories, certain injustices, certain responsibilities, certain triumphs, even certain people.

And so: the tale of three teens shot on the corner is all at once a tale of surprise wounding and fear and danger in a neighborhood that many can identify with, and it is also the specific story of the cycles of violence that plague urban youth, and even more specifically the narratives of three classed and raced and situated boys, and their shooter, and their friends who stood nearby and could have been shot, themselves. And so: the grandmother's is both a familiar story of how death can surprise us and devastate our families, and it is also a very particular, very private story of loss, and trans-continental migration, and survival, and raced and gendered and classed and historied vulnerability. These stories, in the broadest strokes, are mine, because they are stories of human experience and because they are the stories of people in a community I have loved and tried falteringly to know. And at the same time, they are not my stories to tell, to pretend I understand, to interpret as having something to do with me. They do, and they do not.

The ultimate challenge is for us to do the work of seeking out those other stories that make up the tapestry of our collective communal and national and global human experience. The challenge, especially for those of us privileged by where we are from, or education, or economics, or how we look, is to listen to one another, to sit at the feet of our elders, to cross divides and get to know people, to welcome neighbors and refugees and teens and strangers into our homes and to listen to their voices, and to respond when they welcome us into their homes and want to hear stories of our own. The challenge is for us to seek out volumes in the library that challenge our limited view of the world, surprising us with reminders of both how alike and how different we are from various others. I've said this before, but I feel this lesson's weight again today in contemplating Dr. Angelou's lecture and the Chicago sorrows. We need more poems and stories, and we need more rainbows, and we need them in all hues.

Tonight I will pray for neighbors and strangers. Tonight I will return to a novel by a Native American woman, and I will think about history, and my responsibility to it, and how its story is not mine, and how its story is mine. I'm hoping you will do something similar.


  1. read it. your aching sense of sorrow about this past week's events echoes in my own life--here on the other side of the country. i too had an emotion-filled walk amidst a community living its life in the present while i felt part of my life was being lived thousands of miles away. oh, the expanse of the body of Christ.

  2. I read this before, and again tonight. SUCH an important word from Maya, such an important post. I'll never forget the man who came to speak Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poetry at Cedarville--were you there? I'm glad that he didn't look out at the audience that day and shake his head slowly and give up on us. Because I discovered a new soul that day and those words will always stay with me.

    Recently a quiet boy who C had worked with briefly in NYC was killed. C was so still that day. Oh the grief that is and is not our own to bear!