RIP Maya Angelou: maybe it’s time I finally read her work

Bad first impressions linger, but perhaps it’s time I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Maya Angelou reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, January 1993. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Angelou reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning”, at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, January 1993

It’s shameful how many authors and books that I “should have read” I haven’t yet gotten around to. Especially given that I hold an MA in English and am a published author of poetry, fiction and nonfiction and have freakin’ taught literature at the college level.

The list of canonical texts I haven’t read … well, all I can really do is observe is that there are so damned many books that we all ought to know, and very few folks have read them all, and while I haven’t read many that I should have, I have read a great many books, and probably have read quite a few that should be on that Great Books list but aren’t. Perhaps that’s not a sufficient defense, but it’s all I have.

One of the authors whom I perhaps should have read is Maya Angelou, the writer and activist who spent that last three decades as a professor at my alma mater, Wake Forest. It seems like everyone loved her. I mean, everyone. I have friends who took her classes or worked with her and they rave about her even more than those who only know her as readers. Her personal story, which was highlighted in yesterday’s wave of obituaries, is beyond inspiring, and it begins to look as though my studied avoidance of her work has been ill-advised. (Although, it must be said, her 1993 inaugural poem was … well, it was about what every other poem commissioned for a political occasion throughout history has been, wasn’t it?)

The truth is that Angelou and I really got off on the wrong foot. Not long after she started at Wake she directed the Scottish Play. And of course, like every other director in the world, she felt the need to fuck with it. Two casts, alternating nights. One was all female, one was co-ed, but if I recall correctly, it featured a woman playing MacBeth.

You have no idea how I detest those who feel a need to adapt, or reset, or reinterpret Shakespeare. If ever there were a playwright so timeless, so far ahead of his age that his work didn’t need updating, it was him, and it takes a measure of arrogance that I don’t fully fathom to presume that you can somehow improve upon what he did. If you want to make a point about gender inequality, well, he was probably about as feminist as a male writer of that age could have been, don’t you think?

If you don’t think MacBeth sufficiently makes the point you want made, fine. Produce a different Shakespeare play. The Taming of the Shrew comes to mind (so long as you understand the role sarcasm played in The Bard’s oeuvre)Twelfth Night has a certain strong woman point of view. I consulted with Dr. Booth, our resident Shakespeare expert, on the question, and he had this to say.

I would suggest Love’s Labour’s Lost, Merchant of Venice (Portia is amazing), Merry Wives of Windsor (although Falstaff is perhaps too easy a mark). Maybe Measure for Measure, another “battle of the sexes” piece. King Lear (Cordelia is a wonderful character and arguably the real tragic heroine); perhaps the same for Desdemona in Othello.

Or produce a play by a different author. Or, you know, write one of your own. Because you’re a writer.

Like a lot of people, I guess, first impressions linger with me – perhaps too much so. Add this to the already weighty list of my character flaws, but if I hate the first song I hear from a band, for instance, I might never go back (it’s only been in recent weeks that I’ve finally given The Arcade Fire a deeper listen – the first thing I heard from them back when they were the up and coming darlings of the Indie counter-establishment annoyed the hell out of me).

This dynamic is especially pronounced if there are lots of artists competing for my attention. A bad first impression by a band might mean you never give them another shot in a world where there are a million bands. If you don’t have radio, the Internet or a CD collection, on the other hand, and the house band down at the saloon is the only music in town, they might get another shot. Same goes for writers. And there are a lot of writers competing for my attention.

Still, a lot of folks think Angelou was remarkable, and that number includes a good many folks whose opinions I value. So maybe I need to forgive her for messing with Shakespeare back in the ’80s and go read some of her work.

I guess the place to start is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, then?


Thanks to John and Cindy Cavanaugh, Jim Booth and Stuart Rosebrook.


  • Hi Sam,

    Living most if my life outside of the US, I only got to hear about Maya Angelou 2-3 years ago.
    I saw her 3 months ago, when she spoke at a Jewish temple in South Florida.
    The large room was packed with people from all ethnicity, color, shape and size and I was wondering how a poet in her eighties would draw so many devoted fans to listen to her for 45 mns.
    Now I know….
    She was a survivor, a woman who thrived despite repetitive abuse and the obstacles for an African American woman of her generation to become highly educated and transform her wounds into creativity and blessings.
    I will never forget what she said during that presentation : teach your kids how to love words, how to enjoy reading, how to appreciate poetry.

    Words are the biggest treasure and weapon of all times….

    It’s time for all of us to read her work and keep her legacy alive.

    • Arielle,

      I can’t help envying writers, no matter who they are, who manage to touch audiences the way she seemed to. That’s what I think all of us who set out to be writers ourselves dreamed of.

      I don’t envy her the hellish childhood, though…..

  • Sam,

    Thanks for your response.
    Of course, non one would envy her hellish childhood, but these challenges made her become who she was.
    She may have never been who she was if she had not gone through so many harsh moments in her early life.
    Being an African American woman in America in the 40s and 50s was another challenge which also helped shape her destiny and creativity.

  • I saw her speak in NYC a few dozen years ago and I thought she was tedious and pompous, which is why I never read anything by her–more of the Whiny Lit School.

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