Maya Angelou Remembered – Part 3 By Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jnr., Ph.D.

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

If it were not for the fact of my fear of being sharply and aptly reprimanded for blasphemy, I would have said that in a fundamentally superficial sense of the word, Maya Angelou was by no means a beautiful woman, and I believe that somewhere in her vast corpus of writings spanning some six or seven decades, the poet had herself boldly and poignantly observed the same several times. Still, the stark fact of the matter is that Ms. Angelou defied the cheap tawdriness of beauty in the most vulgar sense of the term.

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One would also be tempted to describe her as “handsome,” but that would also be rather too insolent, rude and crude. The label that best approximated her looks is “regal.” There was this near-mystical aura of regality about her in a way that could not be said of many of the globally renowned personalities of significant royal heritage and background. Her regal deportment, particularly when she spoke to a television reporter or interviewer, such as she did a number of times with ABC-TV’s “Like It Is” show, hosted by the recently deceased Mr. Gilbert Noble (Gilbert Edward Noble 1932-2012), readily and strikingly recalled another great African-American Civil Rights legal wit and educator; and that personality, of course, was Barbara Jordan.

And for a time, I always wondered whether such clearly well-practiced regality had something to do with the fact of her having lived in Ghana for quite a considerable while, and also having, by her own testimony and account mastered spoken Akan, the country’s most widely spoken language. Or maybe it was simply in her genes; her clearly inimitably regal mien and deportment, that is. The latter purely speculative rationalization also, paradoxically, seemed to be the better and more convincing explanation. For direct contact with continental Africa, The Motherland, as many an African-American I personally have come across affectionately calls their ancestral land, did not quite fully explain the striking presence of Ms. Angelou’s regality in Ms. Jordan.

Her sharp-edged significance and towering formidability – Ms. Angelou stood at six-feet-even, by the most reliable accounts – appeared to have been afforded further prominence by the fact that she had also endured the barest of human cultural circumstances in one of the most technologically advanced and civilized countries in the world, the United States of America. She would be brutally raped by her mother’s live-in lover, or boyfriend, at 8 or 9 years old and end up turning tricks shortly after graduating high school. It was this dairy-like churn of endured savagery that had emboldened Ms. Angelou to put the greatest of distances between herself and her bleak youthful experiences, once she successfully negotiated the terms of her destiny and took complete charge of the same.

DNA numbers game may have allegedly located a portion of her lineage among the Mendes of Sierra Leone, but anybody intimately familiar with the culture of the Akan of Ghana cannot mistake Ms. Angelou’s bona fide Akan-Ghanaian phenotypical identity. And in a real sense, her momentary psychical decision to take up the study of the Fante dialect of the Akan language and creditably master the same, by all reliable accounts, within the relatively short span of the three years that she spent in the country, was by no stretch of the imagination sheer happenstance. If it was, then, highly probably, it was an accident by premeditation.

Then also, there was that child-like, near-innocent flashes of those sunny smiles that peppered almost every television interview that she granted Gil Noble, another African-American media giant of regal inimitability, that I had the privileged delight to watch with rapt attention to both dialogical and visual resplendence. Those graceful and seemingly deliberately cultivated smiles were a discrete idiom of their own, though the keen observer could not help but notice their euphemistic usage. They seemd to make the narration of the most painful and gut-wrenching experiences of the writer’s life seem bearable in quite inexplicable ways.

And on the purely wistful, such as her several divorces and/or permanent separations and breakups with the significant men in her life, almost every one of them initiated by Angelou herself, those charming smiles made her seem like the one who had been inexcusably wronged, although it was quite obvious that she was the one who had given these former significant others a lot of indescribable pain and anguish. In the end, though, while she seemed to have a ravishing appetite for male companionship and the sacred institution of marriage, nevertheless, Angelou did not seem to possess an adequate supply of the kind of patience that would make it survive and grow; and on more than a few occasions, the poet-actor frankly admitted this much.

And yet when one intensely and critically studied those seemingly cheerfully-liquid eyes, the excruciatingly leaden burden of grief, anguish and knowing disillusionment at whatever seemed to beckon the spirit of this religiously frank confessional poet in the cosmic order of things, was unmistakable. Maybe part of this had to do with her prayerful and epic struggle against violence and human degradation in the larger scheme of a predatory (dog-eat-dog) world.

Take this reading from stanzas 3 and 4 of Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of the Morning,” for example: “You, created only a little lower/ Than angels have crouched too long in/ The bruising darkness/ Have lain too long/ Face down in ignorance. / Your mouths spilling words/ -/ Armed for slaughter./ The rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me,/ But do not hide your face.”  And stanza 2 before the preceding: “But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,/ Come, you may stand upon my/ Back and face your distant destiny,/ But seek no haven in my shadow./ I will give you no hiding place down here.”

The historical fact of Maya Angelou’s passing on what would have been my late mother’s 80th birthday, has a significance for me that is definitive in a way that I cannot fully explain. I mean, at least in one barely expressible sense, the sense of the universal finality of death. But that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would also expire on the 40th birthday of Ms. Angelou’s, must as well have had a significance for the poet-memoirist far beyond the purely symbolic and even sheer coincidence. One thing, however, is certain – calendrical or sidereal dates are grim markers of human finitude. And, paradoxically, it also well appears that in our collective finitude inheres our immortality.

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