Thursday, February 16, 2012

They Call Us Crackers* Sometimes

"When they go, Ghana will be here. They are like mice on an elephant's back. They will pass...He is just part of Africa." --All God's Children Need  Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou

The American writer and poet, Maya Angelou was among the last of a generation who were raised under the full weight of segregation. As a child in rural Stamps, Arkansas, Ms. Angelou was privileged to be the grand daughter of a land owning woman with an independent business in the village of Stamps. From her relatively secure position, she became educated and an inveterate reader of all types of literature. Steeped in the ways of the old South, by necessity, Ms. Angelou's early life formed a resolute character that later supported her as she forged forward to New York's Harlem in the 1950's. A supporter of Martin Luther King and later of MalcomX, she earned her "radical" stripes early.

Reading her work chronicled together as an autobiography is an eye-opening journey with a brave and determined woman. But she also shows herself to be like anyone anywhere; Ms. Angelou is not perfect. She repeatedly retorts with prejudices of her own youth and despite her extensive literary style, does at times pejoratively refer to some as "crackers". For the casual reader of Ms. Angelou, this may come as a surprise. She, these days, is perhaps equally well known as one whose words accompany Hallmark greeting cards. Yet a more thorough reading of her works reveals a woman who is complex and honest enough to admit her thoughts and what she learns. All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes has many nuggets; one in particular is when as the focus of the tale, Maya emigrates to Ghana, intending to leave all the strife behind in America. In Ghana she is surprised and repeatedly confronted with the unexpected:

"Professor, why you let them disturb your heart?"
 I stuttered... 
"They were insulting my people. I just couldn't sit there." 
His smiled never changed. "And your people, they my people?"
"Yes but--I mean American Blacks."
"They been insulted before?"
"And they still live?"
"Yes, but... they also insulted Ghana, your country."
"Oh Sister, as for that one, it is nothing..." 
He said, "This is not their place. In time they will pass. 
Ghana was here when they came. When they go, Ghana will be here. 
They are like mice on an elephant's back. They will pass."

She is then astonished that a simple Ghanaian man could be so secure in this knowledge that he could ignore another's rudeness. He concludes his thought with the observation, that even that man, he is also a part of Africa, a place made of many nations, peoples and cultures. Despite many false starts, Ms. Angelou comes to learn that she too has a place while not as a returned African, but as a living, breathing "Black American" in Africa. This story tells her tale. Spiritually it is poignant in her struggle for understanding of herself and others; she makes sense of the precept of meeting one another on level ground, neither better no worse, telling her experience as she perceives it.

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