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An Afternoon With Maya Angelou

IMG00018-20090923-1504Some one at NIH decided that all the scientific minds at NIH could use a jolt of culture now and then. The result was the annual or semi-annual (not sure about the estimate of how frequently we need a culture dose) Cultural Lecture at NIH. This Wednesday’s lecture featured Maya Angelou – poet, author, teacher and in her own words a global renaissance woman.

I first read Maya Angelou in 2002. I was into reading African American literature those days, with a special emphasis on female authors. I had just completed “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest eye” and then Maya Angelou’s “I know why the caged bird sings”.  Incidentally all three books dealt with the travails of growing up as a black woman & described horrifying childhood atrocities with child molestation and the brutality against women.  All three books were thought-provoking powerful pieces of literature but I was uncomfortable with the depressing theme prevalent in all the books. Having grown up in a well to do Indian family, I was fast coming to the conclusion that it was impossible for me to empathize with the race struggles that African Americans underwent for so long. Although I was impressed with the spirit displayed by the protagonists in an abstract manner, I felt that I couldn’t completely appreciate the character graph since I couldn’t really get a grip on the horror that they had experienced. Frankly the stories made me uneasy, I stopped reading books in that genre and moved on to something else.

It was  a few months later that I came across Maya Angelou’s poetry. I enjoy the occasional verse here and there but I am by no means a big poetry fan. I was a little reluctant to read the book but I was an instant convert when I read Phenomenal Woman. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the poem simply spoke to me. It evoked an emotional response in me—every time I read the poem, I stood a little taller, my chin went up a few inches, my back was straighter. I quoted the poem on my home–page for a long time.  Incidentally some of her other poems regarding women are: Weekend Glory, Our Grandmothers and Women Work.   Then I read “Still I Rise”.

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

And I finally understood the message that all these authors were trying to convey. It was quite a simple one really: instead of focusing on the atrocities the women suffered, what I should appreciate is their indomitable courage and the triumph over life and their dignity in overcoming obstacles.

So when I got an email saying Maya Angelou was going to come to NIH, I decided that I must attend her talk. I reached the auditorium at 1:50pm for a 3pm lecture. The queue for entering the auditorium had wrapped itself half way around the building. When they finally opened the doors, the main auditorium was packed within minutes. I was lucky to squeeze in & get one of the last few seats available.

IMG00021-20090923-1513At 3pm, Maya Angelou walked slowly on to the stage leaning heavily on her cane and immediately launched into her talk. She started off with a childhood vignette of how her poor, barely educated disabled uncle taught her multiplication tables. He pulled her hair if she didn’t recite them correctly with the result that now she can recite them in her sleep. It reminded me of how much importance my father gave to multiplication tables. His motto was that you should know your tables, even if I ask you in your sleep.  So, when I was around 6 or 7 years old, my dad used to wake me up in the morning with “Deepa, wake up. Seven nines are…”. If I did not offer a knee jerk “63” and he sensed any hesitation, I would have to write the entire seven times table before he came back from work. Given that I love my sleep and am notoriously difficult to wake up, I spent a lot of evenings copying my tables over and over again. Like Maya Angelou, I can recite any table at any time of the day or night.

But I didn’t mean to digress. Warming up to her theme of finding rainbows within clouds, she told several stories, recited poetry, laughed and mesmerized a rapt audience. Do not complain, she told us, protest!. She narrated a tale of how she once protested the use of the N word for blacks in a meeting and walked out in a dignified manner to make her point, only to realize that she had left her purse inside and then had to skulk in the bushes till the others left to retrieve it.  Maya Angelou proclaimed that she sees herself as an educator: a teacher who can write. And like a good teacher, she had perfected the art of saying something profound, giving it just the right amount of time to let the thought permeate our minds and then gradually change the solemn mood by saying something amusing. Amongst the many stories, she mentioned her visit to a health food serving diner to see what the fuss was all about and how aghast the waitress was when she attempted to smoke. As she commented on the dour patrons at the store, she stressed the importance of laughter and recited the humorous poem “Health Food Diner” which ends by her declaration that she is a “smoking carnivore”. I thought it was especially telling considering that this was a lecture at the National Institutes of Health where smoking and healthy eating are advocated all the time.  Although she did clarify that she has been nicotine free for the last 20 years, she soon made her point, no matter what you do —defend yourself. You are what you are.

She finished by reciting her poem Brave And Startling Truth written on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of UN. She prefaced her recital by mentioning when she was young; she thought that with her penchant for languages, she would like to work as a translator for a UN kind of office.  She deadpanned:  if she wasn’t 6 feet tall, black, a woman, uneducated, pregnant and 17 years old— she would have gotten the job. There was no doubt that the talk was uplifting, the crowd was inspired and awed by this 81 year old woman who defined African American literature and exemplifies courage and dignity by all that she has achieved.

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2 Responses

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  1. Anonymous says

    Very poignantly written!

  2. Rajeev Varma says

    Very nice read indeed … loved the way to wrote it 🙂

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