Monday, October 30, 2006

Maya Angelou in Stamps, Arkansas

Maya Angelou writes a memoir about growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, in the segregated South. Her depiction is searingly honest, and it gives faces, places, and specific names and feelings to what could be viewed as the collective experience of many growing up in the South in the first 100 years after slavery was abolished in the U.S.

videography: dave feiden

As young African-American females, Maya Angelou and others are automatically relegated to the position of being marginalized by white society. The sense of being on the outside looking in is made even more poignant and harrowing by the fact that antebellum aristocratic values of European origin are imposed on blacks. They consciously or unconsciously buy into the vocabulary and practices of elitism by embroidering knick-knacks for a dowry chest, learning the rules of etiquette involved in setting an elaborate table, and using the language of the debutante to describe one’s coming of age. Such activities primarily function to reinstate difference as the only way of knowing each other, and reinforce the distance that exists between white women and the black women who present such a potent threat to them. To Angelou, the linguistic and social practices of the South are a cruel joke, particularly when the more typical role of a young black girl was to be a servant in a white woman’s home.

The young black female is considered an outsider – an outsider who possesses little or no power. Her powerlessness is illustrated when the white woman has the power to erase and then reconstruct identity by renaming. Angelou provides an example of this in the selection printed here. She is working in a white woman’s kitchen, in what Angelou characterizes as a perverse finishing school, where she learns the finer points of setting a table, etc. Her employer, Mrs. Cullinan, is descended from Virginia plantation owners. She surrounds herself with white friends who consider themselves entitled to “culture” and to be waited on by black servants, in an ugly echo of “the good old days.” The sense of the employer’s power becomes ominous with the power of naming. “Margaret” is deemed too long and is shortened to “Mary.” “Hallelujah” was long ago renamed “Glory” in a creepy echo of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

If renaming can dehumanize, negate, invisiblize and nullify, does the act of naming have generative powers as well?

The mindset examined in this selection is one that looks closely at the way language is used to either empower or strip away entitlement or rights. Conversely, there is an awareness that one can empower oneself by naming, and it can be used for the good.

In writing about how black girls and women were subjected to nullifying linguistic and social practices in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou also corrects the misconception that silence denotes acquiescence or agreement. The women to whom the psychological assaults are not sufficiently empowered to be able to question or counter the practices directly. Indirect rebellion seems to be their only way to resist. Thus, when Angelou considers her situation, she seeks revenge rather than rapprochement, and obtains it when she deliberately breaks a family heirloom from the old plantation in Virginia. Sadly, no one understands the message behind Angelou’s gesture, so her speaking and acting out are misunderstood and worse – processed through the unknowing and unenlightened mindset of her employer.

One does see how erasures of identity are always a part of the outgrouping process. A key lesson is that the converse is possible: ingrouping and inclusion are possible when one names oneself into it.

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 104-119.

Short Answer: Maya Angelou
(questions by Elaine Bontempi)

1. How was Maya marginalized by white society?

2. What does the author have to say about naming?

3. How does the author resist psychological assaults?

4. Explain the irony in the location of the author’s finishing school, and the irony of it all.

5. What was the purpose of Maya’s learning the things that she was taught where she was working?

6. Why was it so insulting for the author to be called Mary? What did this mean to her and others in her community?

7. How is the author’s status as an outsider with little or no power made evident in this reading?

8. Explain what the author meant when she wrote, “Her husband remains, in my memory, undefined. I lumped him with all the other white men that I had ever seen and tried not to see.”

9. Explain how Maya’s identity was stripped away from her.

10. What does re-naming do to one’s sense of inclusion?

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