How to be angry at Maya Angelou

Poet laureate Maya Angelou chokes the living shit out of a Muppet.

Common has fucked up. The man who last demonstrated his relevance to contemporary hip hop by performing at the White House has disappointed former United States poet laureate Maya Angelou, by commissioning a poem from her and then using it in a track in which he says the n-word. Maya Angelou does not like the n-word, which is too bad because it’s really fun to picture her saying it to everybody.* Angelou told the Post that she did not believe Common would  “sing the line of least resistance”—although perhaps she is not totally familiar with his work, since on the same track he also expresses his dream to live in Miami with “exquisite thick bitches.” Compare to Angelou’s contribution: “From Africa they lay in the bilge of slave ships / And stood half naked on auction blocks /. . . and still they dreamed.”

Did you experience a pang of disdain followed immediately by guilt? Angelou’s last line noticeably echoes the refrain of her famous “And Still I Rise,” which taught us how a rich individual sensibility can reforge the collective history of exploitation as something boring and lame. If you’re into poems, you know that “And Still I Rise” is not very good. You also probably know that this presents a huge problem, since Angelou’s poem is about a dozen generations of smug white people telling her that none of her expressions of self are very good. That’s kind of the theme.

So the poetry of Maya Angelou is fraught. On one hand she’s like your grandma, if your grandma were black and you therefore experienced a statistically reduced likelihood of going to college and deciding you were too good for her poems. On the other hand, those poems really are terrible, and one of them is about how sad it was that Michael Jackson died. Sometimes I start singing “Smooth Criminal” even though I know I shouldn’t, in situations where trying to sing like Michael Jackson is likely to bear terrible consequences, and even I know that his death was something in addition to sad.

The problem with Maya Angelou is that she tends to reduce extremely complex conceptual events—the socio-historic marginalization of black people in America, for example, or the death of a beloved child molester—to very simple sentiments. Being black in America is about persevering. Michael Jackson overdosing is about we loved his songs. This isn’t just poetry for people who don’t like poetry; it’s feelings for people who don’t like to feel. The other thing Maya Angelou has in common with your grandma is her subscription to the worldview expressed by Hummel figurines. There is some level on which her poetry does violence to the human spirit, like those people who try to start a standing ovation after every play.

The only thing worse than being one of those people is being the guy sitting with his arms crossed in a high school auditorium. That’s why Common is screwed right now: all he can do is be very nice to Maya Angelou and hope that she says something nice to him before she dies. The man who once called Ice Cube a bitch is powerless to point out that, say, the questionably poetic poet laureate agreed to be on his album evidently without hearing any of his work and then phoned in some lines ripped off not just from one of her earlier poems but from her most famous earlier poem. He just has to shut up. Maya Angelou gets to say whatever she wants and it is fine—possibly even inspiring. It’s our fault. We made her that way.

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  1. This strikes me as the difference between second and third wave feminism. The latter group says “hey, this is a part of who I am and I should be free to it. The old timer says “why would you go outside the bounds I fought to make for you?”

  2. That message makes more sense when the brackets aren’t cut out.

    “hey, this (thing) is a part of who I am and I should be free to (verb) it.”
    In this case the thing is the n-word and the verb is use. But for a common feminist dispute the thing could be cleavage and the verb flaunt.

  3. What’s up with using “the n-word” when you’re quoting other people or speaking about the word itself? That particular combination of letters won’t offend my retina or primary visual cortex and by the time it enters my higher cortices there’s no question that “n-word” is simply the word “nigger”. It’s absurd to not use the word itself and I’m surprised – plus a bit disappointed – that you would engage in such silliness.

  4. I agree that it’s absurd, but I think euphemism of the n-word is an absurd extension of the project of reclaiming it. As a white person, I avoid the n-word in quotation for the same reason I would not repeat someone who said “fuck my chinky box.” I don’t think it’s wrong so much as likely to cause trouble in polite company. In the extremely metaphorical act of semiotics that is giving black people exclusive use of the n-word in exchange for, you know, slavery, I think exclusivity extends to quotation.

    Personally, I cleave to the rule that it’s okay to say it only if Dre is saying it at the exact same time.

  5. “The problem with Maya Angelou is that she tends to reduce extremely complex conceptual events … to very simple sentiments.”

    Wait, isn’t that the purpose of all poetry, and all writing, and pretty much all communication? To take a complicated subject and reduce it into digestible chunks? Virtually anything can be criticized for failing to address something.

  6. I am once again annoyed (surprise!) with Combat. Can’t you quote “nigga” —– please? You just showed, ironically, you have no problem with quoting “chinky box”, darlin. We all suffered slavery equally, which is to say, not at all. I’m a white guy whose great-great grandparents were slaves. I know you don’t feel guilty about insulting Mose. Get over “nigger”.

  7. It is absurd for a white person to believe he or she gets to dictate the terms for using the n-word. And it is beyond ridiculous to claim that “we all suffered slavery equally, which is to say, not at all.”

    One, “slavery” is part, but not the whole, of the centuries-long systematic oppression of blacks by whites in the United States. That oppression continued after the formal institution of slavery ended. It continues today.

    Two, one white guy with slave ancestors doesn’t balance out the attempted dehumanization of an entire people* based on their blackness. (*Rather, several _peoples_, who were amalgamated into one construct of “other” after being kidnapped from their homes, literally decimated, and forced into permanent servitude and manual labor.) The United States has made black to equal bad pervasively and perniciously; the attempted subjugation of black people for being black cannot be compared or reduced to the suffering a white person experiences. The n-word has been and is one of the many tools for enacting that unique form of violence.

    Third, if we have any doubts about the ongoing effects of racism, of which the n-word is a part we cannot disentangle, we can look at the data. African-Americans use 13% of drugs in the United States but do 84% of its drug-related jail time. African-Americans make up 12.6% of the US population but 37.6% of the prison population. But we need to chill out about a key tool and important symbol of that racism because there haven’t been formal slaves in the US for awhile? Come on.

  8. “There is some level on which her poetry does violence to the human spirit, like those people who try to start a standing ovation after every play.” One of the top five best Combat similes ever. A damn fine piece of work, Dan-o.

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