Maya Angelou Remembered – Part 2 By Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jnr., Ph.D.

Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jnr., Ph.D.
Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jnr., Ph.D.

I don’t know how my father felt listening to the former Prime Minister’s daughter do the proverbial numbers on the generously talented author of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, that is, angrily light into novelist, educator and translator, Prof. Ayi Kwei Armah, for having, supposedly, satirically lambasted Dr. Efua Sutherland for allegedly appropriating the works of others (presumably less well-known but, perhaps, far more talented) without giving credit where it was duly due and deserved. We never really discussed it at any remarkable length, though it began to dawn on me that the old man might, after all, have had a point, as it were.

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Yes, it occurred to me, somehow, that the old man was not simply making bitter noises about the seemingly patently marginal, merely because in the eyes of those who had other things on their minds, he had not been as successful in whatever he had set out to achieve than the couple of his former teachers, mentors, colleagues and associates that he wistfully accused of having shortchanged him, and perhaps also his destiny at some point in his career and life.

At the first, I couldn’t make a head or a tail out of the bitter bitching of the former Prime Minister’s daughter, until I asked the old man during the second half of the Sutherland Memorial Thanksgiving Program, which largely consisted of a cocktail and some light snacks, mainly crackers and cheese. I know what you’re thinking, reader; yes, of course, there were a few crackers in the audience, a few decent ones who appeared to have either cultivated a great love and passion for Auntie Efua, as Ms. Efua Sutherland was popularly and affectionately known, or Ghana, or even both. There was also some “Afrocentric” live-band music provided as part of the refreshments in the reception hall, just a floor below the lecture theater.

As I vividly recall, in spite of the nearly two decades that have passed, the space reserved for the post-memorial and thanksgiving reception at the Schomburg Center was named in honor and the everlasting memory of arguably Black America’s greatest bard of the twentieth century, James Langston Hughes, the globally celebrated poet-laureate of Harlem and standard-bearer of the historic Harlem Renaissance Movement, composed of some of the best and brightest artists, painters, writers of all genres and musicians and, of course, scholars as well.

There was a mandala-like motif etched into the smooth-pebble terrazzo floor of the reception hall, and also what looked like the proverbial torch of the eternal flame. I had been doing research at the Schomburg, both as an undergraduate at City College of the City University of New York, located scarcely a half-mile west of this landmark citadel of the global African experience, and as a graduate student of Pan-African Literature, History and Culture at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for nearly ten years but had never been to these parts of the Schomburg Center, except for the basement reading room and , of course, the quite spacious lobby, occasionally festooned with global African art exhibits.

Maya Angelou’s listing on the Sutherland Memorial Thanksgiving Program was especially significant because barely three years before, the Arkansas-raised – or at least partially Arkansas-raised – litterateur, at 65 years old, had been afforded perhaps her greatest prime-time spotlight in the homes, watering holes and offices of American citizens and residents of all shades and stripes. It must have also been the most privileged moment of Ms. Angelou’s lifetime, perhaps only surpassed by her first visit to the African continent. And that prime-time spotlight, of course, had to do with the presidential inauguration of Mr. William Jefferson Blye Clinton.

President Clinton’s 1993 first inauguration before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, must have been one of the coldest late January days in recent national memory. I forget how many degrees it had been that rather sunny morning, but it was definitely either in the single-digit minuses or single-digit pluses. It was also memorable because it was also historic; for Maya Angelou made history as the first American poet, black or white, to be commissioned by a President-Elect to compose a poem in celebration of his inauguration or official swearing-in as substantive leader of the most powerful nation in the world, since the immortalized New England poet, Robert Frost, read at the inaugural of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1961, some thirty-two years before!

The Angelou poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” could well have been written by postcolonial and Civil-War Era poet Walt Whitman, America’s first globally recognized “major original poet,” particularly stanzas 7, 9, 10 and 11, where Ms. Angelou issues a clarion call for all Americans, irrespective of race, culture, ethnicity and creed to join hearts and hands and resolve to live together in harmony in a new dispensation of mutual and collective responsibility for the needs and aspirations of one another.

“On the Pulse of the Morning” could also have been written by, you guessed right, James Langston Hughes who, by the way, envisaged himself to be the literary scion – or grandson – of Mr. Whitman. Even so, the poem is uniquely Angelouesque, though it has a sharp and witty edge to it which could only have been so mellifluously composed by a comfortably mature and settled Maya Angelou.

It, of course, goes without saying that it was the epochal circumstances that made this lapidiary work of genius seem to facilely echo Messrs. Whitman and Hughes. For like the former whose work was significantly inflected by the peculiar American institution of slavery – my profound apologies to Kenneth Stampp – and its equally significant concomittant of the Civil War, a reparative baptism of fire of sorts, Angelou’s poem is also remarkably inflected by the epochal tone of progressive and re-creative concilliation resonantly invoked by then-Candidate Clinton throughout his 1992 presidential-election campaign.

In stanza 9 of the poem, Angelou pointedly calls on all Americans to boldly, courageously and honestly face the unpleasant realities of the country’s past with the resolve of permanently putting the past behind them and morally refreshingly creating a new and more meaningful mode of existence: “History, despite its wrenching pain/ Cannot be unlived, but if faced/ With courage, need not be lived again.”

And in Stanza 10, the poet-reveille awakens her fellow citizens to “Carpe Diem” or seize the new opportunity, presumably presented to them by both their newly elected leader and Divine Providence, to positively shape their destiny: “Lift up your eyes upon/ This day breaking for you./ Give birth again/ To the dream.”

While Angelou’s deft deployment of diction generously infuses the poem with a solemn sense of gravitas, nevertheless, “On the Pulse of the Morning” is very easy to understand. Which is why I felt “politely disgusted” when a white-American woman with whom I traveled on the AmTrak from New York City’s Penn Station to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station – she was going on to Baltimore, where she served as an archivist-librarian in a museum – cynically snapped that she scarcely found the poem to be meaningful and purposeful in any remarkable manner.

“Well, the general theme is one of multiethnic and multiracial unity,” I riposted wistfully, somehow, hoping that she would come around. Fat chance! I huffed under my breath as we parted ways and I promised to keep in touch with her, if also because because I intended to write a conference paper of the poem.

Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D. Department of English Nassau Community College of SUNY Garden City, New York Board Member, The Nassau Review

June 1, 2014