While many American poets have languished, regardless of race, creed, color or excellence, the savvy and ever-seductive 74-year-old Marguerite Johnson, a.k.a. Maya Angelou, has parlayed statuesque looks and modest talents as actress-dancer-singer into a 30-year role on the literary stage that is, indeed, phenomenal. In 1993, at the behest of President Clinton, she became the second poet in U.S. history to recite an original poem at an inauguration. Few poets can spark a smidgen of the controversy generated in 2001 by Angelou's undisclosed cut of the estimated $50-million in sales for writing greeting card verse, a pursuit for which she is superbly suited. Purportedly the final installment of her serial autobiography, "A Song Flung Up to Heaven," appears only a few months after the first of her Hallmark card line and seems calculated to encompass celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, African American history month, National Women's month as well as her 74th birthday this month, National Poetry Month.
It might be assumed that Angelou would take her honorary doctoral degrees, make a graceful bow and retire from the literary round table with celebrated reputation intact. Alas, a dignified departure is not the trait of the greedy when one more traipse to the trough is offered. Once again, Angelou dips into her past to offer up an emotional repast that would starve a skeleton.
I vented my bias against celebrity autobiographies at the outset of a favorable review of Angelou's "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes" (Book Review, Aug. 13, 1986), in which I stated that I usually find them "self-aggrandizements and/or flushed-out elaborations of scanty press packets." Relieved, I summarized "Shoes" as "a thoroughly enjoyable segment from the life of a celebrity!"
No can do with "Song."
"Song" is a sloppily written fake, bloated to 214 pages by large type and widely spaced chapter headings, more than half its 33 chapters averaging two to four pages. Powers exhibited in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" have deserted her in "Song." Her titillating confessions and coquettish allusions come off as redundant and hollow old tricks. She not only engages in her usual name-dropping but shockingly makes that the book's content. Shamelessly, she cannibalizes the reputations of three major black figures: Malcolm X (Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), James Baldwin and King Jr., using them as linchpins on which to promote her specious pose as an activist.
"Song" opens with Angelou's return to the United States from Ghana in 1964, a time when she looked to plunk herself into the sociopolitical fray. She spends time in San Francisco, in Hawaii and in L.A. (west of the Harbor Freeway, where whites were the majority) before moving to New York City, living above the concerns of a new generation of angry young blacks.
With unflinching piety, she skips her days as a dancer and restyles herself as a militant, fostering the illusion that she was at the core of the civil rights and black power movements. Rather than substantiate this, Angelou plays the adolescent game of being the first to tattle on others when one is guilty: "The same people who don't give a damn now will lie and say they always supported him [Malcolm X]." Throughout "Song," Malcolm's name is a mantra as Angelou smokily extols "the importance of his life and of his death" without exposition. She has forgotten the swift reliability of the 1960s underground grapevine. Had she joined the Organization of African-American Unity (I belonged to the Compton branch), it would have been news coast to coast. The dead (including Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, who died tragically in June 1997) cannot contradict her--which may partly explain the 16-year lapse between "Shoes" and "Song." Meanwhile, Angelou artfully plays the race card, like the muse Euterpe or Sister Flute, coochie-cooing admirers out of shirts and socks, transforming bigots into simpering ninnies and academic cowardice into five-figure honorariums.
If "Caged Bird" put Angelou at the fore of those braving fiction's devices to enhance their truths, in "Song" she regresses, making it a textbook example of the danger inherent in that technique: misinterpretation. For example, taken alone, Chapter 19 might approximate any single woman's search for work on hostile turf but, when wedded to Chapter 25, it becomes a "choose" in street parlance--straight out of novelist Iceberg Slim--making Angelou, in her 30s, seem less the ingenue ward and more the procurer when setting up her benefactor with a lady friend.
Ever age-conscious, Angelou relies on innuendo and inference to blur time, avoiding dates, locales and other details, thus muddling events, as in "Caged Bird" when recounting the excitement generated by a Joe Louis fight. Angelou scrambles Louis' June 25, 1935 bout with Primo Carnera (she was 7) with his June 22 championship bout with Max Schmeling three years later. Likewise, in Chapter 9 of "Song," the book's lengthiest, Angelou bizarrely mangles the Watts riots of August 1965. After exclaiming "the cry of 'burn baby burn' was loud in the land" in 1964 (the phrase was the signature of KGFJ disc jockey Magnificent Montague, unheard nationwide until after the riots), she patronizingly defends residents with whom she is unable to identify, tiptoeing down to Watts to see the devastation.
In writing that is bad to God-awful, "Song" is a tell-all that tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors ("sobbing embrace," "my heart fell in my chest") and clumsy similes ("like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting time") are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son's auto accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come without explication, and schmooze substitutes for action. Her most intriguing character, "The African," is underdeveloped. She softly decries racism in between snipes at those who marginally offended her during her "rise" (Eldridge Cleaver, a white woman at a party). Tiresomely, she repeats her mother's homilies when not issuing her own. There is too much coulda shoulda woulda.
Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of "A Song Flung Up to Heaven" seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn't a song.
From 'A Song Flung Up to Heaven'
Rosa and Dolly and I traveled to Stockton to spend a last weekend with my mother before returning to New York.
She cooked and laughed and drank and told stories and generally pranced around her pretty house, proud of me, proud of herself, proud of Dolly and Rosa.
She said black women are so special. Few men of any color and even fewer white women can deal with how fabulous we are.
'Girls, I'm proud of you.'
In the early morning, I took my yellow pad and ballpoint pen and sat down at my mother's kitchen table.
I thought about black women and wondered how we got to be the way we were. In our country, white men were always in superior positions; after them came white women, then black men, then black women, who were historically on the bottom stratum.
How did it happen that we could nurse a nation of strangers, be maids to multitudes of people who scorned us, and still walk with some majesty and stand with a degree of pride?
I thought of human beings, as far back as I had read, of our deeds and didoes. According to some scientists, we were born to forever crawl in swamps, but for some not yet explained reason, we decided to stand erect and, despite gravity's pull and push, to remain standing. We, carnivorous beings, decided not to eat our brothers and sisters but to try to respect them. And further, to try to love them.
Some of us loved the martial songs, red blood flowing and the screams of the dying on battlefields.
And some naturally bellicose creatures decided to lay down our swords and shields and to try to study war no more.
Some of us heard the singing of angels, harmonies in a heavenly choir, or at least the music of the spheres.
We had come so far from where we started, and weren't nearly approaching where we had to be, but we were on the road to becoming better.
I thought if I wrote a book, I would have to examine the quality in the human spirit that continues to rise despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Rise out of physical pain and the psychological cruelties.
Rise from being victims of rape and abuse and abandonment to the determination to be no victim of any kind.
Rise and be prepared to move on and ever on.
I remembered a children's poem from my mute days in Arkansas that seemed to say however low you perceive me now, I am headed for higher ground.
I wrote the first line in the book, which would become 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.'
'What you looking at me for. I didn't come to stay.'