Is it time yet to talk honestly about Maya Angelou?
When excited bulletins on cable news let the public know that Maya Angelou had passed away, I bit my tongue and stayed my keyboard. I generally follow the rule of letting the dead rest in peace for a day or two before writing critically of them. But this fine piece by Daniel J. Flynn in the American Spectator covers many of the points I would have brought up about the late poet/madam/actress/communist/all around phony.
Flynn calls her “an author more revered than read,” and that gets to the heart of the Angelou phenomenon. I will give her credit, as Flynn does, for playing a role very well. That role was as a victim who rose beyond her victimhood to become an icon. But an icon of victimhood as badge of honor, cultivating a voice, a manner, a persona that embodied dignity, thereby triggering waves of adulation from those who, out of guilt or hope, devoutly wished her to be a giant, so that all who have been a dealt a bad hand at birth could similarly rise and find dignity. She gave the suckers what they wanted. Flynn has got her number:
“I’m not modest,” Angelou explained last year to the AP. “I have no modesty.” She got to know herself, apparently, after getting to know poetry and politics and songs and stage. She usurped her parents’ privilege by renaming herself after finding “Marguerite Johnson” not quite arresting enough. In this spirit, she insisted that others call her “Dr. Angelou” though she never obtained a college degree.
The fact that she turned left – hard left, embracing Fidel Castro, a murderous tyrant who has impoverished and enslaved his people – was a good career move. There is an important phenomenon in cultural life that the hard left has exploited for many decades. Most people cannot really tell what good poetry, or painting, or serious theatre (or artsy film, for that matter) is, but they fear looking stupid if they fail to appreciate what others say is good. So, an “artist” in these semi-esoteric fields who is helped along by a claque of politically sympathetic cheerleaders in academia or journalism can become “widely acclaimed” and, if he or she plays the part well (as Angelou did), even “beloved.”
The late playwright Arthur Miller was one left wing beneficiary of this herd instinct, but there have been many others. It is one great advantage that the organized left enjoys and exploits to the hilt in turning culture into a weapon. People praised his plays because they seemed to be serious and “important” and so many critics told them he was good that they were willing to sit through his plays (often performed by the top actors giving their all) and come out singing his praises, silencing the inner voice that told them they had been at least a little bored or turned off or just didn’t get it.
I once spent about 6 hours in close proximity to Ms. Angelou, flying from Atlanta to San Francisco in the first class cabin of Delta jumbo jet. The phony-detector in my head was flashing red almost the entire time. I have never in my life seen so much fawning on the part of flight attendants nor anyone receiving such fawning with quite the same level of apparent belief it was the least that could be offered. Everyone in that cabin was supposed to be aware that a higher being had graced us with her presence.