So You’re Picking Up Maya Angelou from the Airport.
By Alison Balaskovits
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is none other than the legendary Maya Angelou. Poet, memoirist, journalist, activist, dancer, singer, ICON. Quite simply she was, and remains, essential. Her accomplishments and importance are too numerous and too enormous to list here. Just get ready for a hell of a ride.
1. Singing Sweet – When I See You Smile Given all the tragedies, losses, and challenges she endured in her remarkable life it’s amazing to notice just how often Angelou was smiling (if not beaming) in the many photographs of her taken over the decades. Through everything she experienced she never deviated from her own dictum: I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it. For her, a song as beautiful as her smile. Just try not to spend too long in a state of awe-struck disbelief over the fact that this is a dancehall cover of a hit tune by Bad English.
2. Brownstone – If You Love Me Waterfalls, On Bended Knee, Fantasy, Candy Rain…it’s pretty clear that the 1995 Top 100 chart represents an indisputable annus mirabilis for Modern R&B. As a culture we can only hope to scale such heights again. And not least among the bounty was this one from Brownstone. The song is infectious and unforgettable on its own, but as far as I’m concerned it reached icon status as a central element it the Holly Hunter / Queen Latifah rollin on E lesbian club dance sequence in Living Out Loud which will be recognized as a top-10 1990s movie moment in history books 1,000 years hence.
3. Fuentes All Stars – Pégale a la Nalga I have no idea what’s going on at the beginning of this song. Is the dude having a seizure? Catching the Holy Ghost? Presiding over an auction? Whatever it is, I dig it. Your average Toyota does not allow much room for dancing while seated, but I’m sure you’ll find a way…you’ll need to. Any passenger who refuses to move with you to this one can be promptly deposited on the nearest curb/exit-ramp. Not to worry, Dr. Angelou is definitely down. P.S. I got curious and Google translated the title, it seems to roughly mean “Hit him in the ass”. Sounds about right.
4. Cymande – Dove 11 minutes of effortless cool, plain & simple, from Cymande (among Spike Lee’s favorite soundtrack adds). There won’t be any talking while this song is playing. You and Dr. Angelou won’t need language. Just lean your seat back a bit, stiff-arm the wheel and go where the track takes you. Warning: chanting will likely ensue.
5. Louis Jordan – Beans and Cornbread This is quite simply the greatest song ever recorded about two anthropomorphic food items getting into a brawl. Always fun, always energetic, this is a solid trip-starter. Also, speaking of Spike Lee soundtracks: it’s a little iconic due to being prominently featured during a scene of utter (and fairly comic) mayhem in Malcolm X (if you’ve seen the movie you’ll remember it well.) It’s a fairly sure bet that Dr. Angelou would dig the Louis Jordan, considering she covered his Run Joe on her only official full-lengthmusical release. I dare you not to be singing this to yourself 3 days later.
6. Rashaan Roland Kirk – What’s Goin’ On’/Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) She wrote seven autobiographies, but make no mistake Maya Angelou never took her eyes off the injustice, the strife, and the resilience in the face of both that she saw around her in both America and the wider world abroad. Still, she met it all with grace and the conviction that things can (and will) get better with our hard work and willingness to change. I dig Kirk’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic jams because he honors their original depth and truth without losing his own essential joy.
7. Common – The Food (Ft. Kanye West) Put aside the fact that Dr. Angelou referred to herself & Dave Chappelle (on whose show this track was recorded live) as “soulmates”, or that she appeared on Common’s song The Dreamer, and you’re left with a ridiculously chill cruising song that manages to incorporate some super-sly shots at pop cultural/consumerist sacred cows. This one makes the playlist on a musical level, no question. But the biographical extras don’t hurt either.
8. Lyn Collins – Think (About It) Sure this is basically a James Brown song with a guest vocalist…but there could never be anything wrong with that, so crank this! Hard funk, in-you-face lyrics, female empowerment, endlessly sampled (Dj E-Z Rock I’m looking at you). Hell yes, play it twice.
9. Alice Coltrane – Journey in Satchidananda If only every journey down the interstate were as mellow, expansive, and as full of possibility as this, the title track of Alice Coltrane’s 1970 release. A perfect light-night tune, no one in history has ever managed to switch this off past 11 p.m. If you acquire a single harp record in your entire life, make it this one.
10. Nirvana – Where Did You Sleep Last Night Angelou often spoke of how the rhythms & mysteries of the blues acted upon her writing and how important the music was, not only for African-Americans but as part of the DNA of the country. This song, originally an Appalachian folk tune, but most famously recorded by blues legend Leadbelly, was covered by Nirvana for their 1993 MTV Unplugged set and it just might be the most searing moment from that entire series (for real, check out 5:08 in the clip when Cobain finally opens his eyes). I can never listen to it without thinking of Angelou’s Insomniac.
11. Wendy Rene – After Laughter I’ll admit, this isn’t necessarily the most road-friendly song out there. For one it doesn’t have the kind of intense & pulsing beat that you generally appreciate on the open road. Beyond that, it’s difficult to stay in your lane when your sight is occluded by open weeping. Still, this is one of my fav tracks of all time and Rene’s raw emotion is compelling to the nth degree.
12. Latyrx – Lady Don’t Tek No Look back at her life and you can really only come to to one conclusion: Maya Angelou was a superhero. Sure, she suffered, she knew loss, and she battled doubt…but so did Peter Parker. To overcome everything she experienced in her long life while never retreating, while never pitying herself in the face of steady racism, sexism, and tragedy took someone with undeniably singular character and resolve. The fact that she had the talent to share her experience so effectively with the rest of us, well…we’ll just have to be eternally thankful for that. If there were a movie about Dr. Angelou as a superhero this just might be in the opening credits sequence.
When We Can’t Separate a Person from his Work
Today’s Blog Post comes from Brenda Peynado.
Every week, the Kenyon Review features a story and poem of the week in a mass email. I normally look forward to reading the work curated from KR’s archives and celebrated, and some of my favorite writing I first discovered in those emails. Last week, however, the story was a Woody Allen story. Immediately, I felt betrayed. I felt angry. After my emotional gut reaction, I tried to have a logical one. Was I justified for my feelings? What was the KR’s intention? Knowing how much attention the controversy surrounding Allen has gotten, it seems unimaginable that the editors at KR were unaware of it. Which means that they made the decision to celebrate Woody Allen for a story he wrote over 30 years ago in their archives, knowing full well they were doing something many people question and others have called for a stop to. Maybe they did it specifically to celebrate Allen and show some solidarity to his case, maybe to demonstrate that they believe he is innocent of molesting Dylan Farrow, or at least that he hasn’t been convicted in a court of law. (I’ll leave it for others to argue the unfortunate state of how few sexual crimes are convicted in courts of law, and how quickly we wash our hands of victims’ testimonies.) Maybe they did it because of the controversy, hoping to get some attention and traffic on their website in the aftermath that would follow. The best possible scenario is that they think the story merited more attention, they thought republishing a story they’d already published was a neutral action; that they don’t have to take a side in the public debate, that they could separate anything said about the man in public opinion from the value of his work.
But this is not a neutral action. Especially considering the story had to be dug up from thirty years back to celebrate it. This is a tricky business, entangling and disentangling a person’s life versus their work. Where do we draw the line? What responsibility do we have to do it?
How much can we actually separate a person and their work? Can we exclude questionable morals in the art itself from impinging on an artist’s self? By and large, most artists would say, yes. Art’s purpose is to stir powerful emotion and thought, not to give pat morals. When people burn or censor books, most writers scoff at the simplistic motivations behind such actions. Nabokov’s Lolita, by any moral account, would be censored, and has been censored, but writers agree that it was an intentionally provocative book, intended to question rather than preach. We writers certainly don’t want anyone censoring it. We write flawed characters with questionable motivations all the time. We celebrate Humbert Humbert not for his morals but for the technique employed to write him, the epitome of unreliable narrators. We celebrate Fuckhead in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son because he moves us. Would we assume that Nabokov’s morals were that of Humbert Humbert’s? Of course not. As writers we recognize that the narrators of fiction and speakers of poems can be separate, and if they are tangled, they are so in ways we cannot easily put our finger on. So we do, in some cases, separate the writer’s life from his work.
A few weeks ago, Seth Abramson wrote a poem using Isla Vista killer Elliott Rodger’s final words before he went on a killing spree. His poem, in my opinion, was abysmal, and the promptness of the poem’s publication seemed to point more to attention-grabbing than the thoughtfulness and gravity we normally lend to art. Maybe Abramson always writes his poems that quickly, and maybe none of his poems are to my taste. Either way, I was still surprised at the intensity of the backlash. A few days after the poem was published, Omnidawn sent out an email to their mailing list, beginning, “Because silence is often understood as tacit agreement or acceptance… we feel it is our responsibility to say that his actions in this matter are not in alignment with our principles.” They then continued to say, ambiguously, that they would no longer be publishing the Best American Experimental Writing series, co-edited by Seth Abramson. Here is a case in contrast to the Kenyon Review’s actions in celebrating Woody Allen, an organization that is hyper-attentive to the consequences of supporting someone’s work. They were unable to compartmentalize what they judged to be a questionable action from other seemingly unrelated works of Abramson’s. It is worth noting that it was Abramson’s work itself that people objected to, so it’s harder to disentangle, for example, this poem from that poem. The poem was in his professional sphere, perhaps it is appropriate that any consequences would be professional. His defenders say that his only fault was writing a bad poem. For those that disagree, it really isn’t the poem itself, and how bad it was, that people object to. It was how the poem led to their imagined intentions of the man behind the poem. Fame? Exploitation of unfortunate events? Thoughtlessness? people wondered. While Allen’s lack of judgment is on a completely different level than Abramson’s, it is relevant how quickly some were willing to wash their hands of Abramson’s work.
Then we had Maya Angelou’s death within the same week. The obituaries were often beautiful and moving, describing her accomplishments. Then people got upset that they were ignoring other parts of her life, namely, that she was a sex worker. But then eulogies started mentioning her time as a sex worker and people had a problem with that representation too. Many people said we should separate the woman of words from her messy life. Above all, we should not reduce her by it. Her career should stand on its own merits. Wholeheartedly, I agree. But that puts me in a sticky situation when it comes to how I feel about Woody Allen, which is exactly the opposite.
Maybe it’s a matter of ethics I feel are forgivable versus those that are not. I am currently living in a country (the Dominican Republic) where prostitution is legal, although frowned upon, and many women in poverty end up in sex work out of sheer economics. That someone once was put in a situation where they may have been harming themselves is forgivable to me. That someone preyed on children repeatedly–or even just once–is not. Perhaps it’s that Maya Angelou never hid her messy life from anyone. Perhaps it’s that I imagine Maya Angelou pushed into that situation by economics and lack of privilege, and that Abramson and Allen are men at the height of their privilege, with successful careers, with no reason for their actions except for their own shortcomings. Perhaps it’s that molestation has victims.
But repeatedly, we as artists forgive people for their crimes. Countless programs of writers in the jails, teaching convicts how to write, anthologies celebrating the words poured out from behind bars, even this very blog has its Literature on Lockdown series. Maybe it’s because we feel they are already punished for their crimes—due justice already served—and we feel that Allen has not faced appropriate justice like these other people. Maybe it’s because we believe that people are ultimately good and can be redeemed, no matter how horrible their crime, once they have faced the consequences. Maybe we feel the penal system is unjust, that these people were pushed into their cells and their crimes by a grander system, and we are trying to make a difference by listening to words of people trapped there. Or maybe we would feel differently if we knew exactly what these convicts did. Was such and such poem written by a rapist or a murderer, or did they only commit a victim-less crime, or did they have “good” but not legal reasons for what they did? Would that make a difference to how we listen? Or is the fact that they have been through extremes of life we cannot imagine—that they have that much to show us—enough to justify our spectatorship? I do believe in second chances; given the right circumstances. Of course, as spectators we have no right to forgive them; we are not the victims of their crimes, if they had victims. We are only ears.
But can we stand by the accused in our silence which is really a tacit agreement, like the wives or families of those accused of rape who tell them victim, “Well, he didn’t rape me. He didn’t do it to me. He did it to you. This is not our problem nor our responsibility”? Or even “Are you sure you’re not making that up? After all, in a dark room alone, it’s just your word against his.” Or even “Are you doing this for attention? Why are you even bringing this up now?” I’ve seen each of these situations with some of my own friends who accused their rapist, sometimes in their own family, and their own family turned them away. Sexual violence seems to be a particular sort of crime—one that is discouraged from being reported, when reported the victim is discouraged from pressing charges, and when charges are pressed, they are so often dismissed because of lack of evidence beyond the victim’s word. A crime that our culture perpetuates by our silence.
I accept that people are multi-faceted. That they can kill one person and love another. That they can honor one son and ignore another. That they can love their family but rob a stranger on the street. That our identities are multiplicitous and full of change. That anyone can have moments they are ashamed of and swear never to do again. I also believe in second chances given the right circumstances. And I also admit that justice in these cases is complicated and even justice has its innocent victims. The families and friends of the people we punish, they suffer too. As a writer, someone trained to imagine myself in any situation and have that perspective be a moving story, I understand all this. But does that mean that we should live in anarchy, justice-less, lawless? Absolutely no. That would make a society in which people can behave as they want without consideration for the harms caused to others. Maybe that is exactly the point: we should reframe the issue to be not one of justice for a single person, but one of culture activism and changing the society in which we live.
The issue is not the individual, the one man, this one small story of Woody Allen in a weekly email from the Kenyon Review. After all, not being a story of the week in a literary journal is hardly what I would call justice. The issue with all these silent ears giving tacit acceptance is that they create a culture in which someone can molest a child with impunity, that it sends a message to other rapists and molesters that we will tolerate what they’ve done, that we will ignore their accusers, that crimes of sexual violence are no big deal, a matter to be solved behind closed doors. And I don’t want to live in that culture, the very one we’re in right now. Digging up a story of Woody Allen from thirty years ago in order to celebrate it may seem like such a small, neutral action, but it’s so much larger than just one man and one short story. It’s really about changing the culture that we want to live in, where rapists and molesters will not be supported, they will not have a safety net, they will not be celebrated.
Brenda Peynado has work appearing or forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, 3rd Place in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Contest, Cimarron Review, and others. She received her MFA from Florida State University. She is currently on a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic.
The Trending Infection: An Open Letter to Mark Oppenheimer
Today’s guest blogger is author and editor Rae Bryant
On May 29, 2014, The New Republic ran an essay by Mark Oppenheimer titled, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” The essay goes on to pose questions about honorary degrees and entitlements. It just so happened that minutes previous to reading this essay by Oppenheimer, I had finished watching, for the third time, the recently released HBO film The Normal Heart, a fine adaptation of Larry Kramer’s original play. The parallels between prejudice in education and prejudice in sexuality struck so clearly for me, I was stunned not only that Oppenheimer had written the essay but also that The New Republic had published it.
I was nine-years-old in 1981 when HIV/AIDS—then termed “Gay Cancer” by straight media—forever changed social, medical and sexual landscapes in local and global communities. The combined infectious spread and mortality rates would be unprecedented in the United States. This is how I came to age, in many ways a product of the Generation X AIDS misunderstandings, prejudices and fears. My core developmental years, both physically and sexually, formed by this disease. Prejudice had come out of its closet as a much larger paradigm, the majority controlling the minority in everything from gender to ethnicity, sexual identity to educational canon and elitism. All of these prejudices led to an avoidance of public health and social equality many times throughout history, and here it was again, with the gay population. It would be years later before the facts about AIDS began circulating publically through media, communities and schools, and even then, the facts suffered such distortion by media, politicians, educators and the moral majority, public understanding of the disease was more often myth than reality. What made the disease so frightening to the public? We didn’t understand the realities of the disease. We were afraid an infected man jumping into a community swimming pool could infect an entire population of swimmers. What made the disease so frightening to the CDC? The disease presented as opportunistic. It depleted the immune system, the least understood in the body, and left its host open to infection by viruses and bacteria a healthy infant’s immune system could fight without issue. As fearsome as this disease was and is, it is not, and has never been, as disastrous and contagious as the prejudice that surrounded and perpetuated its infection. The disease was allowed to replicate and spread due to this prejudice and to the in-fighting between political and medical professionals who might have otherwise sought quicker funding, research and treatment. In the end, it wasn’t the disease that killed so many people. It was the prejudice.
Women and minorities have been fighting prejudice in higher education since the dawn of thought. Prejudice is as contagious and detrimental to our socio-political and physical health as AIDS would be to our immune systems. In his essay, Oppenheimer exemplifies this prejudice with his question, only days after Angelou’s death, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” The short answer: Maya Angelou was awarded several honorary doctorates from various post-secondary institutions due to her extensive artistic and professional successes, including a Pulitzer. The doctorates were awarded to her with an eye toward transcendence of voice over majority biases and prejudices in her lifetime, biases and prejudices that made it difficult for some and impossible for others to attain such degrees, leadership and academic equality. To be more pointed, Mr. Oppenheimer, “People” call Ms. Maya Angelou Dr. Maya Angelou because she more than earned the title in her craft and activism as a doctoral degree holder, a craft and activism doctoral candidates hope to one day attain as degree holders. Maya Angelou, before and after her doctorates, took this calling. She was at the top of her class. Not only was she your senior, Mr. Oppenheimer, in every way, she did not require the degree to further her art and social activism. Her art social activism furthered her degree. The honorary doctorate, if one is to employ reason, masters the “earned” doctorate in this case and many more.
Though some writers neglect their doctoral responsibilities, such as Oppenheimer confesses he does, Maya Angelou did not. She engaged in her medium as a forerunner before and after her awards—i.e. the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage and anti-apartheid activism in Ghana to name two. She battled prejudice and misinformation, as damaging and infectious to thought as communicable diseases are to the body. She did this not only for herself but also for generations of readers now and ongoing. She helped to change cultural understanding and socio-political practices.
Writers are well aware of the power a single work of fiction can hold. Well-crafted fiction does not force change or seek to indoctrinate its readers. It invites readers to form critical thought and change for themselves. A well-formed book of fiction can be an antiviral to prejudice, oppression, misogyny and fear.
As Oppenheimer suggests, scholarly doctorates need not be waved about at cocktail parties for any reason other than to bolster one’s ego and hierarchal positioning. Agreed. However, when the degree earned or awarded belongs to an individual whom the white, male majority would not regularly recognize as part of its hierarchy, the cultural responsibility of the honoree is great. For the minority to tuck her degree away would be to minimize the positive social and cultural impact of her degree. The giving of Angelou’s degrees, as honorary, are in part to inform and model opportunities for women and just as importantly minority men. Higher education, in no uncertain terms, is a pathway toward defeating oppressive paradigms both externally and internally. A woman brought up within this oppressive culture knows why the caged bird does not sing. She also knows the importance of the beacon in encouraging her to one day “sing.” More leadership diversity in gender and ethnicity perpetuates a more diverse culture and understanding of culture. An honorary beacon, such as Angelou, must be heralded and seen.
Oppenheimer would have us believe that a doctorate is easy to attain, because it was easy for him: “Graduate school is not even that hard. I am a good cocktail-party bullshit artist, but I was that before grad school, and some of the best BS’ers I know have only a B.A.” He would also have us believe that a doctorate should be an elite benchmark: “We use titles…to denote a credential, awarded by ratifying experts, to one who has attained a certain level of expertise.” He also insists that titles should not matter: “I believe the academy, in particular, is a place that works best when it’s collaborative, not hierarchical. Respect does not come from titles.” Finally, he insists that those who have not “earned” the easy degree through coursework and dissertation, should not be allowed to claim the degree as he does in his essays and on his website. The resulting impression of the essay suggests that this elite benchmark is easy for Oppenheimer to attain and therefore should be easy for everyone to attain, and though he attained a doctorate and writes essays highlighting the doctorate as well as mentions his doctorate on his website, no one should pay attention to the doctorate. In Oppenheimer’s perceived world, sure. Outside Oppenheimer’s perceived world, not so much. Even if Oppenheimer subscribed to the naiveté of a current ‘prejudice free educational culture,’ he surely couldn’t subscribe to a prejudice free educational history, a history Maya Angelou suffered, surmounted and then became an integral presence in its ongoing change. If one is to believe Oppenheimer is both adequately intelligent and cerebral—he does have a doctorate, after all, he reminds us of repeatedly through the essay—one would believe Oppenheimer could understand Angelou’s position within the very real gender and minority educational prejudice. Based upon this premise, one would believe Oppenheimer, as a writer, understands the power of words and how titles do make an impression within the traditional biases of canon culture. If one accepts these premises as axiom, one would have to question the intention of Oppenheimer’s essay, and here is where the contagion presents.
Writers of the doctoral elite and writers not of this elite are at risk of the industry-driven and opportunistic infection known as Trending. Trending is as infectious to the mind for the writer as HIV/AIDS and any number of communicable diseases are to the body. A topic pops up on The New York Times, Washington Post, Facebook, Twitter and so on, and writers begin drafting words with the frenzy of a retrovirus attacking reason. It is not enough to replicate an already trending topic in an already trending frame. The infected writer must seek a new way to frame the trend so to give his story its own trend about the already trending topic. What’s worse is that new media has built itself on this very infectious principle. Newspapers and journals have willingly succumbed to this Trending infection as a way to stay current in the ever-evolving market. Historically, male writers have found female writers easy targets—i.e. early industry male reactions to Ms. Magazine’s launch. For Trending-infected writers, celebrated and recently deceased writers are headline savvy marks. Obituaries are already running in the major newspapers and social networks. Punching out a quick and somewhat controversial essay is one of the more lucrative options for the Trending-infected writer. The disease and those infected perpetuate the practice top down.
We mustn’t blame Oppenheimer or The New Republic. They are victims, too. They have lost the ability to fight off opportunistic infections—snarking, elitism, prejudice… Trending has taken over reason. No one can really know the extent of the infection, right now, and readers can only hope the infected will not get into bed with more partners and instead will seek treatment for the infection. Sooner rather than later. Myself included. In hopes of caring for and curing infected family, friends and lovers, I and other writers will offer criticisms and counter-criticisms, which in many ways adds to the infection. It is a cyclical and ongoing problem, but this is what we do. We write about Trending topics then we write criticisms to the writing about Trending topics and so on. Perhaps the most important question to ask one’s self is, What is the intention behind writing this piece? My answer: To critically support Maya Angelou’s academic position as a woman and minority in a male biased academic and media market. I am curious as to what Mr. Oppenheimer’s intention was in writing his essay. He asks, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” Here is, perhaps, an answer he will understand: Why not?
Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals (Patasola Press, 2011). Her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s, Huffington Post, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications. She is the founding editor of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Follow her on Twitter at @raebryant