Thursday, May 29, 2014

Maya Angelou and the Empowerment of the Oppressed and the Poor

By T.M. Bonner

Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 - May 28, 2014)
   I usually don’t write about prominent figures when they pass away. But seldom has one person most personified an essential component in social change than Maya Angelou.

   The entire life of this brave, brilliant, and bold woman was a testament to the power of personal empowerment to change the world.

   And personal empowerment is no small matter.

   Though many don’t want to admit this, personal empowerment is covertly and quietly discouraged in the oppressed and the poor in America. It is done through the very systems that operate under the guise of ‘aiding,’ ‘assisting,’ and ‘strengthening,’ but, instead, subtly instill the message that the oppressed and the poor permanently belong outside the circle of power and prosperity.

   These same systems limit mobility options for the oppressed and the poor and close bridges to avenues of possible future prosperity via their narrow-minded rules and regulations, limited knowledge of the diversity of their clients’ pasts and lack of vision for their clients’ future potential. So, the ‘Affordable housing’ provided is neglected public or private housing trapped in poor neighborhoods with zero access to the resources that they will need to survive, as well as succeed. They will be given food stamps so they can eat, but the amount will be systematically so low that only the least nutritious of foods can be bought, resulting in a lack of control over one’s dietary choices and health. Republican-led states with absolutely nothing to lose monetarily block their access to now affordable healthcare, handing down future chronic health conditions, or even death sentences, to them. Their wages are low enough to ensure they only have enough to get them to the next inadequate check – if lucky. Schools will be available – sans the funding, support, and resources to actually properly prepare students for college or the workplace of the 21st Century and beyond.

   Empowerment is more than a cool-sounding concept. It is a necessity if any social change is to actually happen in this country. But it takes resources, energy, and support. And, yes, it also sometimes takes protection of the right to be empowered from high places. Anyone who has studied history, or who has been breathing for the last 15 years, knows what happens to people who discover their empowerment: they end up shot up by representatives of law enforcement or shut down by racist communities (think Black Wall Street in Oklahoma). Or, the government itself intervenes and shuts it down - lest such empowerment begins to spread (think the Occupy Wall Street Movement in New York City).

   So people like empowerment on paper. But in action, it is an entirely different story.  Sometimes it’s even the idea that systems, communities, people and governments can tolerate this type of empowerment over that type of empowerment because one makes them feel less threatened by only baby cradle-rocking the oppressive boat instead of rightfully kicking it over. Oftentimes, those most afraid of empowerment or who try to put conditions on how far it can go, stand in a position to benefit most by inequality and oppression.

   But Maya Angelou was lucky and clever. She was lucky in that she was blessed with the gifts of intellectual and writing brilliance that were tools for her own personal empowerment. And she was clever in that she didn’t waste those talents. Instead, she used them to give voice to not only her own oppression and subsequent empowerment, but also help generations of others find their own personal empowerment. 

   Angelou was giving voice to what it meant to be an American of African descent long before Rap and Hip-hop came on the scene. In her famous empowerment poem "Still I Rise," she wrote:

"You may write me down in history,
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I'll rise."
           (from Angelou’s famous poem “Still I Rise”)

   Angelou was more fierce and raw than any rapper speaking on systemic oppression in those lines. In the same poem, she even schools those who have issues when confronted with a confident, smart, goal-oriented, battered but hopeful African-American (a.k.a: “uppity negro”) in the following lines:

"Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room."

   Her brilliant words stung us for our backward thinking, but also awakened and empowered us all to our own innate strength, beauty, and capabilities – and there was nothing anybody could do about it. No police could kick in this poet’s door in the middle of the night and arrest or harass her. No government or community could demand a shutdown of her brain that produced such brilliance. So continue to empower she did.

   I had the fortune to go see Ms. Angelou perform at the Boston Symphony Orchestra several years back. This day was vivid because during her concert, the strangest thing happened:  a man collapsed in a medical emergency. In the chaos and panic that ensued, two African-American women ran over to the man to assist. As they were doing so, several nearby white audience members strongly advised the women to wait for medical personnel or a doctor to arrive. The two African-American women said in almost perfect unison: “we ARE doctors.” A knowing glint appeared in Ms. Angelou’s eyes. Some of what Ms. Angelou had been telling us moments before about her experiences as a black woman of being labeled, misunderstood and underestimated had been presented as a real-life lesson to us in that one unexpected moment.

   There was nothing else that needed to be said about that moment. Our job was to just let the lesson sink in and learn from it. So in true Maya Angelou fashion, she just calmed everyone until the man was taken away to be treated, and then continued with her wonderful performance.  

   In one part of her show, she began to tell us about various times when she experienced oppression or abuse. She wouldn’t conclude any of the scenarios with how she rose out or above it. Instead, after each story, she would merely sing the lines: “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” She was cleverly telling us that no matter what happens to you or against you, never let it defeat you or take away your brilliant, God-given light. Never let it distract you from your God-given purpose on this earth. You always have the power to be a one-person revolution. Always. You just have to realize this fact. And when you do, there is nothing anybody will be able to do shut down your own personal empowerment movement.

   And I'm sure that though Ms. Angelou was called home peacefully in her sleep on May 28, 2014, she would admonish us not to get lost in despair, sadness or pain. Because the gifts she has given us all  - the gift of learning to dare to love ourselves, to go for our dreams, to not let anyone define our limitations, and to always know why the caged bird sings - still shine within us. In fact, she is looking down on us now with a playful, knowing smile borne of a lifetime of hard-won wisdom, and telling us to just sing: "this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine…"

No comments: