Archive for March, 2012


The Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou has written a novel called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but she doesn’t explain the title.  It actually originates from a Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem titled “Sympathy.”  He lived from 1872 until 1906, and lived in a period where Blacks couldn’t expect to be treated equally or fairly.  Their best possible option was to be ignored, yet their poets cried out, singing songs of hope and lament.

Dunbar intones, “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me/When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore–/When he beats his bars and he would be free/It is not a carol of joy or glee/But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deepest core/But a plea, that upward to Heaven flings/I know why the caged bird sings.”

Not so very long ago, slaves sang spirituals to a God above, a God who would make everything right in heaven.  In the Color Purple, Celie claims, “This life soon be over.  Heaven lasts all ways.”  Indeed, all ways, not always.

Maya Angelou takes these sentiments, and turns them on their head, saying that even in sadness there is freedom, even in loss and inequity there is beauty to be found in a life well-lived.  At the very beginning of chapter fourteen, she talks about the residents of a small, rural town in Alabama called Stamps:  “They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due.  Their decision to be satisfied with life’s inequities was a lesson for me.”

She wrote her own poem of hope:  I Rise.

“Out of the huts of history’s shame/I Rise/Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/I Rise…/I am the dream and the hope of the slave/I Rise/I Rise/I Rise.”

Despite the limitations of the time period where open prejudice, hostility, and mistrust flourished, Blacks have found a way to make their life on earth matter, a great difference from their past where hope was an afterthought.

No matter how big or small our life is, there must still be gratitude that we are afforded a life at all.  That seems to be Maya Angelou’s belief.  She names and renames Black people as Negroes, Coloreds, Blacks, and the slur word White people use.  I asked a friend Rosie what term she prefers, and she said that Black seems perfectly acceptable to her, although other Black men and women use the term African-American.  The difficulty, she claims, is that most names assigned to Blacks are terms Whites have created to differentiate themselves from a sense of “otherness.”  Blacks therefore have to find a way to reclaim their heritage through whatever appellation they use.

What do you call me? I have already used all those words and they are useless to me now, Maya Angelous seems to challenge.  She insists on being accorded a life of dignity, a sense of a life well-lived.

Many Black people that I have run into answer the question, How are you, by saying simply, “I’m Blessed.”  White people that I encounter very rarely respond that way, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe Whites are afraid of seeming too overtly spiritual, almost as if religion and religious sentiments are something to be embarrassed about. I personally think we should learn better what makes us alike rather than what makes us different.  I think it’s perfectly alright to be blessed.  As children of God we do not need to grovel.

How Do You Define Valor?

Just yesterday I saw the movie Act of Valor.  It’s my belief that as a society we have become so innundated with war movies and action-thriller films like the Mission Impossible series that real sacrifice is treated superficially and no longer affects us the way it did other generations.

Act of Valor, however, turns that notion on its head, and made me fully aware just how much is at stake for our troops at home and abroad.  In creative writing courses I have been taught that a good story should seem both inevitable, yet retain the capacity to surprise us.  This film succeeds brilliantly on both counts.  We know we are going to face the loss of at least one character we feel strongly about, but we nevertheless hope beyond hope that we will be wrong.

Act of Valor transverses from one country to another, from the Phillipines to Chechnya to the United States and Mexico, showing how the ruthless nature of the illegal drug trade supports something much more sinister:  global terrorism.  Without giving too much away, the story tells about the invention of plastic flak jackets which could be worn under a tuxedo to fool airport security.  These jackets have miniature be bes which explode, descimating an entire area such as the always busy Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles.  I don’t know if such technology exists, but it is nevertheless a scary thought.

Interwoven with this story is the relationship these special op soldiers have with each other as well as their families at home.  Nearly every week at our Catholic church, we are invited to pray for our soldiers and their families.  The real peril which faces these brave men and women is rarely discussed and it can be hard at times to feel there is very much at stake, especially as we as American citizens are so well insulated from the atrocities of war that it can sometimes be hard to feel much beyond the idea that it is a shame we even need a military.  Act of Valor proves to me that war is awful and ugly, but necessary to support freedom throughout the world.  At my local library, each September 11th, the librarians and citizens of my small town gather together to mourn our collective losses as a country.  In our own way, we honor those who make the ultimate sacrifice.

As Shakespeare put it many years ago, much better than I can express, “Cowards die many times before their deaths.  The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Crazy Is As Crazy Does

In Steel Magnolia’s the main character Shelby, played by Julia Roberts, says, “I’d rather have ten minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” 

Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of famous writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, embraced this attitude.  She typifies the hedonism,  headiness of the Roaring 1920’s, self-exile, and spiritual alienation of the Jazz Age.  She is considered the High Priestess of the Jazz Age, but her life proves the tendency of those artists to self-destruct.

Surrounded by famous writers, artists, and painters like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway,  as well as Pablo Picasso, famous expatriates in exile in decadent, vibrant Paris, plus jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ma Rainey, Zelda Fitzgerald lived her life on her own terms until alcoholism and mentally illness beat her down.  Gertrude Stein coined the phrase the “lost generation,” but she probably didn’t realize how prescient she would turn out to be.  Hemingway committed suicide and Zelda Fitzgerald ended up dying in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in North Carolina when she was only 48.  She didn’t know how little time she would have to make her mark on the world, and she has since quietly slipped away into relative obscurity.  She never achieved the success she courted, and was eclipsed by her more famous husband.

At one point she pronounced, “I don’t want to live.  I want to love first, and live incidentally.”

Most of her life, she was a type of shadow artist, following in the wake of writers and artists who actively pursued their craft.  She may not have been content, but she settled for less, only writing her novel, Save Me the Waltz, while she was hospitalized.  It is considered to be a confusing novel, not a particularly great work of art.  She also obsessively tried to find her way as a ballet dancer, but again was thought not to be good enough.  She was in a race against time.  There is a lesson there for artists of all types.  Don’t wait to create!  You might not have tomorrow. 

Zelda even said, “By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future.”  Her novel chronicled her marriage to F. Scott, and he resented the barely fictionalized account of their marriage, even though he wrote Tender Is the Night, his version of their tumultous marriage of seething resentment and bitter acrimony, barely two years later, in 1934. 

In the sanatorium she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Nowdays she would be treated and released to live her life as best she could.  Doctors still rely on Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) in recalcitrant cases, but it is a last resort because of the numbing effect on memory.  She wanted to live a bohemian lifestyle but in the end was stymied.

She was a beautiful, ill-fated debutante flapper, born too soon.