Over the summer, I made a conscious effort to read as many books as possible. Grad school had slowly stripped away the love for reading I developed as a kid, and I wanted to re-awaken my inner buck-toothed bookworm. When it was all said and done, I had nine books under my belt. One of my favorites was Maya Angelou’s Gather Together in My Name, the second book in her six-book autobiography. I thought of it today as her life, and writing, were celebrated on what would have been her 90th birthday. She was not alone in being acknowledged, though; today also marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
There was media coverage, accompanied by equally ubiquitous social media posts, dedicated to honoring the lives and work of two of the Black community’s greatest contributors. It was beautiful, but also a bit maddening. More mainstream coverage in particular did some pretty blatant sanitization of the two legacies at hand. I’ve come to expect it where Dr. King is concerned; his most flowery quotes are elevated above all others, and are often weaponized when responses to racial injustice dare to veer outside of the lanes created by respectability politics.
A quick aside: Sarcastically stating how “proud” Dr. King would have been at the perceived “divisiveness” of boldly asserting one’s humanity is an extremely quick way to get yourself a one-way trip to Blockapulco.
But I digress.
Using the most respectable bits of his work–which centered on love and unity–much of the coverage juxtaposed those messages with the alarming polarization present in today’s America. If you let folks tell it, the gentile, docile, Dr. King would have essentially told us to hug it out. Nevermind that among many other unpopular comments, he lambasted the half-assed allyhood of the “white moderate”; America’s destructive obsession with capitalism; and the prioritization of military spending over education spending.
But again, that is typical. What I hadn’t deeply considered before reading Gather Together, though, is the way Maya Angelou’s life and legacy is sanitized, especially around her womanhood.
In particular because most Americans remember Angelou in her old age, the indiscretions of her youth are often cast aside; society often strips older adults of their sexuality, past and present. She is described as “regal,” “matriarchal,” “elegant,” “brilliant.” The thing is, many of the folks who venerate the revised image of Dr. Angelou would have referred to the back in the day version of her as…how do #theyouth say it?
“…I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” wasn’t just some clever addition to Still I Rise. Not only was Angelou a stripper back in the day, she also engaged in both sides of sex work; as a madame, and briefly, as a call girl. Furthermore, she had a bit of a temper; cussed like a sailor; and suffered no fools. Revisionist history, though, has painted her as a gentle grandma who had an incredible way with words.
Like Dr. King, she was complex, multifaceted, and blazed a path which often challenged what way one is “supposed” to think, go, or be. Not only is sanitizing their stories for the sake of appeasement a disservice, it is lazy, and outright wrong. And if we’re keeping it all the way live, if they could, they’d probably briefly pop up from the afterlife and cut into the folks who constantly do it.
Frankly, stranger things have happened, so here’s hoping that those people cut the shit, posthaste.