U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Maya Angelou and the Passing of Intellectual Generations

Once again, for the second time in two weeks, I find myself having to write after the death of an African American legend in the field of the humanities. While two weeks ago saw the passing of Vincent Harding, last week included the passing of Maya Angelou. Passing away at age 86, Angelou’s death sparked (not surprisingly) discussion about her legacy as a writer and poet. My post today will take a slightly different look at Angelou’s life, however, and place her and Harding within a larger intellectual historical context.

Let’s start with what’s easiest: both Harding and Angelou came of age during the Civil Rights era. The paths they took, however, were quite different, with Harding in the academy and Angelou traveling as a performer to various places in the United States and around the world. Some have pointed out, as well, that Angelou was well-acquainted with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also lived outside the nation during the early 1960s, presiding in Ghana for a time as part of an African American expatriate community there. Harding was close friends with Dr. King during the 1960s, and was later tasked to be the first director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The point here is that both were active in the moving parts of the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s.

What’s just as important, however, is to consider what both did after the 1960s. Harding stayed active as director of the Institute of the Black World through the 1970s, while Angelou’s career as a writer skyrocketed with the release of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. Since I’m on the topic of African American writers and scholars from this era, it’s also important to bring up Amiri Baraka, who was at the forefront of the Black Arts movement at this same time period. Of course, none of their careers ended even in the 1970s.

Angelou’s presence in African American culture, as well as contributing to American letters, will be a fascinating topic chronicled by historians for years to come. There are a few reasons for this, most notably two very public occasions at which Angelou spoke to a large audience. The first that comes to mind is Angelou’s recital of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 Inaugural. Only the second poet to recite a piece at an Inaugural (Robert Frost being the first in 1961), Angelou’s reading was remembered as much for the novelty of an African American poet (or, perhaps, a poet period) having such a major presence at an Inaugural as for the poetry itself.

What I also think of, however, is her poetry recital at the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. That particular march, which is waiting to be historicized (it was only nineteen years ago, so it’s understandable why little so far has been done about it) represents a moment of promise in post-Civil Rights history. Thinking about how African Americans strategized and considered their place within American society after the 1960s has been a difficult task for scholars to engage. But it must be done, and looking at the careers of people such as Angelou and Harding provides rich sources and new ways to think about such questions.

This task has become all the more important because it’s increasingly clear we’re seeing the passing of what’s left of a particular generation of African American activists and intellectuals. As I noted last week, in recent months we’ve seen the deaths of such figures as Baraka, Harding, and now Angelou. It must also be noted that writer Sam Greenlee (best remembered for The Spook Who Sat by the Door) and activist General Baker passed away within hours of the death of Harding. All these activists, writers, and scholars, experienced and participated in the debates about Civil Rights, Black Power, white backlash, and so much more during their long public careers. With heated debates today about who is, and isn’t, a public intellectual, not to mention new questions about the place of African Americans in society today, the end of that generation of leaders needs to be marked with contemplation—by activists, certainly, but also by historians. For it is historians who will have to understand how those activists came to terms with the changing intellectual and ideological conditions around them. Angelou, who went from speaking at the 1993 Inaugural to the 1995 Million Man March, and experienced so much more before and after those events, is but a symbol of a generation of men and women who saw, and did, a great deal.

On that note, I’d like to announce another S-USIH roundtable that’ll be hosted here, on the blog, from July 6-12. It’ll be a response to the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece, “A Case for Reparations.” Having produced considerable buzz, and containing within it plenty of historical analysis, the essay begs for a wide variety of responses from historians. So far, I’ve already extended an invitation to both our regular cohort of bloggers here at USIH, and to a few special guest writers that I’ll announce in just a moment. Also, after Twitter conversations between myself and Kurt Newman about the need for historians to respond to it, we decided to get the ball rolling on this roundtable.

Now, if you’re also interested in participating, then please send myself ([email protected]) and Kurt Newman ([email protected]) an email containing a short, 150-300 word abstract about what you’d like to tackle in regards to the “Case for Reparations” piece by June 18, 2014 at 8 pm. So far we’ll have entries from myself, Mr. Newman, L.D. Burnett, Andrew Seal, Ben Alpers, and Tim Lacy. In addition, we have two special guest bloggers: Ramsin Canon, a Chicago-based lawyer, and Tressie McMillian Cottom, a sociologist who has her own well-regarded blog and has been published in Dissent magazine and on Slate, among other places.

So I look forward to hearing from others, if you so choose to contribute. Again, abstracts are due by June 18, 2014, at 8 pm.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice post. I did not know, btw, that Angelou spoke/read at the Million Man March. I must confess that most of what I know about Angelou comes from a NewsHour piece/interview the other day that J. Brown did with Elizabeth Alexander; Angelou’s appearance at Clinton’s first inaugural was discussed, but nothing was said about the Million Man March.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it. One of the reasons I wrote this piece was that I saw very little about Angelou at the Million Man March, which was a surprise to me. That’s why I also mentioned that it’s time to look at that event in historical context and understand why, a) it happened and b) why it’s not surprising Angelou was at such an event.

    • I think you’re right, that really was a strong suit of hers.

  3. Nice post indeed, looking forward to the discussion of Coates (I really enjoyed this particular response: http://urbanhistorians.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/the-case-for-repair/). About Angelou, one can’t also forget the importance gender plays. Beyond recognizing Angelou as a pathbreaker alongside other black female trailblazers such as Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Angela Davis, I think there’s still much to examine in terms of how ideals of black masculinity and femininity were performed during the Civil Rights era and beyond, and how women such as Angelou negotiated with such ideals, reinforced and/or subverted them.

    • Yes, this is SUPER important. I briefly toyed with writing about the gender aspects of her speaking at the Million Man March, but it’s something I instead want to contemplate for the future–especially since a major critique of the 1995 march was, what seemed to many, to be a single focus on Black men at the expense of Black women.

  4. I am most familiar with Maya Angelou through my reading *about* her during the Culture Wars. In my circles, during the 1980s and 1990s, no one ever talked about Angelou’s character or her poetry (its benefits, themes, strengths, weaknesses). Rather, Angelou and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings were symbols or totems—i.e. there’s Angelou and the book, and there’s Angelou as the avenging angel of multicultural doom and the book as some kind of weapon she (and her ilk) wielded. In sum, I bet many people have learned, in the past week, a lot about her as a person and her book because many have only known what she symbolized (voluntarily or not). My sense is that Angelou took on some of this symbolism willingly. But I’d love to know more about that from her papers and correspondence. – TL

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