Literary Zone

Poetry: Men

5 June 2013 at 02:23 | 2504 views

Men

By Maya Angelou, USA.

When I was young, I used to
Watch behind the curtains
As men walked up and down the street. Wino men, old men.
Young men sharp as mustard.
See them. Men are always
Going somewhere.
They knew I was there. Fifteen
Years old and starving for them.
Under my window, they would pause,
Their shoulders high like the
Breasts of a young girl,
Jacket tails slapping over
Those behinds,
Men.

One day they hold you in the
Palms of their hands, gentle, as if you
Were the last raw egg in the world. Then
They tighten up. Just a little. The
First squeeze is nice. A quick hug.
Soft into your defenselessness. A little
More. The hurt begins. Wrench out a
Smile that slides around the fear. When the
Air disappears,
Your mind pops, exploding fiercely, briefly,
Like the head of a kitchen match. Shattered.
It is your juice
That runs down their legs. Staining their shoes.
When the earth rights itself again,
And taste tries to return to the tongue,
Your body has slammed shut. Forever.
No keys exist.

Then the window draws full upon
Your mind. There, just beyond
The sway of curtains, men walk.
Knowing something.
Going someplace.
But this time, I will simply
Stand and watch.

Maybe.

About Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson; April 4, 1928) is an American author and poet. She has published seven autobiographies, five books of essays, and several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than fifty years. She has received dozens of awards and over thirty honorary doctoral degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of seventeen, and brought her international recognition and acclaim.

Angelou’s list of occupations includes pimp, prostitute, night-club dancer and performer, castmember of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, author, journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the days of decolonization, and actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. Since 1982, she has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She was active in the Civil Rights movement, and worked with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Since the 1990s she has made around eighty appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. She is respected as a spokesperson of Black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of Black culture. Although attempts have been made to ban her books from some US libraries, her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide. Angelou’s major works have been labeled as autobiographical fiction, but many critics have characterized them as autobiographies. She has made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel. Angelou is best known for her autobiographies, but she is also an established poet, although her poems have received mixed reviews.

Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and a navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya," shortened from "My" or "Mya Sister." When Angelou was three, and her brother four, their parents’ "calamitous marriage"ended. Their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In "an astonishing exception" to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time, Angelou’s grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because "she made wise and honest investments".

And Angelou’s life has certainly been a full one: from the hardscrabble Depression era South to pimp, prostitute, supper-club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King and Malcolm, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln.

Four years later, the children’s father "came to Stamps without warning" and returned them to their mother’s care in St. Louis. At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty, but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou’s uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years believing, as she has stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone ..." According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography about Angelou, it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.

Shortly after Freeman’s murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors that would affect her life and career, as well as Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset. When Angelou was 14, she and her brother moved in with their mother once again; she had since moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School while studying dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson).

Angelou’s second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19 and "depicts a single mother’s slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime." Angelou worked as "the front woman/business manager for prostitutes," restaurant cook, and prostitute. She moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education.

In 1951, Angelou married Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Enistasious (Tosh) Angelos, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother. She took modern dance classes during this time, and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Angelou and Ailey formed a dance team, calling themselves "Al and Rita", and performed Modern Dance at fraternal Black organizations throughout San Francisco, but never became successful. Angelou, her new husband, and son moved to New York City so that she could study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.

After Angelou’s marriage ended in 1954, she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco, including the nightclub The Purple Onion, where she sang and danced calypso music.Up to that point she went by the name of "Marguerite Johnson", or "Rita", but at the strong suggestion of her managers and supporters at The Purple Onion she changed her professional name to "Maya Angelou", a "distinctive name" that set her apart and captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances. During 1954 and 1955 Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of trying to learn the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages. In 1957, riding on the popularity of calypso, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, which was reissued as a CD in 1996. She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.

Angelou met novelist James O. Killens in 1959, and at his urging, moved to New York to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several major African-American authors, including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield, and was published for the first time.

After meeting and hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1960, she and Killens organized "the legendary" Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and she was named SCLC’s Northern Coordinator. According to scholar Lyman B. Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and "eminently effective". Angelou also began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.

In 1961, Angelou performed in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, along with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson.That year she met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make; they never officially married. She and her son Guy moved to Cairo with Make where Angelou worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper The Arab Observer.

In 1962 her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Accra, Ghana, he to attend college, where he was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Angelou remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1965. She became an administrator at the University of Ghana, and was active in the African-American expatriate community.

She was a feature editor for The African Review, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana, and worked and performed for Ghana’s National Theatre. She performed in a revival of The Blacks in Geneva and Berlin.

In Accra, she became close friends with Malcolm X during his visit in the early 1960s. Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1965 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity; he was assassinated shortly afterward. Devastated and adrift, she joined her brother in Hawaii, where she resumed her singing career, and then moved back to Los Angeles to focus on her writing career. She worked as a market researcher in Watts and witnessed the riots in the summer of 1965. She acted in and wrote plays, and returned to New York in 1967. She met her lifelong friend Rosa Guy and renewed her friendship with James Baldwin, whom she had met in Paris in the 1950s and called "my brother", during this time. Her friend Jerry Purcell provided Angelou with a stipend to support her writing.

In 1968, Martin Luther King asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed, but "postpones again", and in what Gillespie calls "a macabre twist of fate", he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4). Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by her friend James Baldwin. As Gillespie states, "If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou’s spirit and creative genius".

Despite almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated "Blacks, Blues, Black!", a ten-part series of documentaries which dealt with the connection between blues music and Black Americans’ African heritage, as well as what Angelou called the "Africanisms still current in the U.S." for National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS.

Also in 1968, inspired at a dinner party she attended with Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and his wife Judy, and challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis, she wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.

Editor’s Note: Here is a short bio on Maya Angelou:

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