Monday, June 9, 2014

Somebody Up There

I'm pretty sure I was no more than seven years old when, after having wakened from a nightmare and gone to my mother for comfort and reassurance, I began to wonder who she went to when she had a bad dream, when she was afraid.  I had just come to realize that my mother was also a daughter, that one of my grandmas was her mother.  But she didn't live with her.  If she had a bad dream, she couldn't get up and run to her mother.  So what did she do?  What did all grownups do?

Democracy Now! broadcast excerpts today from a memorial to the late Maya Angelou, and what they chose to share was mostly gag-making.  First the war criminal and general congenital cheap pig Bill Clinton:
Here is why I think she died when she did. It was her voice. She was without a voice for five years, and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her his voice. She had the voice of God. And he decided he wanted it back for a while.
That got him an ovation.  Of course she really died because God needed another angel.  And this sort of thing, with its amoral sentimentality, is probably inescapable when someone dies, but coming from someone like Bill Clinton it's especially repulsive.

Next up was Michelle Obama, who claimed that "the power of Maya Angelou’s words ... carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House."  Well, no, I don't think Angelou should get the credit (or the blame) for Mrs. Obama's ending up married to a President of the United States.  Not even when I consider that Angelou also inspired "a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States."  (I'm sure I'm not the only person who reflects from time to time on what difference it would make to the discourse about President Obama if his mother were still alive.  Did she really "raise her son to be the first black president of the United States," or were her standards higher than that?)

Finally Oprah Winfrey took her turn, and she was in many ways the most appalling.
I was in utter despair and distraught and had called Maya. I remember being locked in the bathroom with the door closed, sitting on the toilet seat. I was crying so hard she could barely understand what I was saying. And I had — I was upset about something that I can’t even remember now what it was. Isn’t that how life works? And I called for long-distance cry on her shoulder, but she wasn’t having it. She said, as you all know she could, stop it! Stop it now. And I’d say, what? What? What did you say? And she said, stop your crying now. And I continued to sniffle and she said, did you hear me? And I said, yes, ma’am. Only she could level me to my seven year old self in an instant.
And so on, and on.  Winfrey's remarks sent me to the pages of Marge Piercy's 1973 novel Small ChangesPiercy had a fair amount to say about the Strong Woman and the women who depend on her.  In Small Changes there's a Socratic dialogue on the subject.
“Don’t try to make me somebody up there,” Wanda said with quiet anger.  “On some higher level.  I’m older than you, yes.  I have a few things to teach you that you want to learn, though most of it is in you already.  But I’m not existing on some easier, calmer level.  If I’m older, I’m also more spent.  I have less reserves, less to spare.  I’m a woman the same as you, and it isn’t easier for me to fight and to survive and to get things done than it is for you!  It makes me angry when you pretend it’s different for me.”

“But you know so much more.  You never wonder who you are, I know you don’t!”

“Beth, it’s recently I stopped being only Joe’s woman and mother of my kids.  That’s all I was for years, and don’t forget it.  Joe, my kids, and radical politics were my life, in that order.  I wasn’t on my own list of priorities.”

“But now you do know!  You do!  I feel you’re pretending.  Because I know you’re stronger than me.”

“You mean I’m louder.  How do you know I’m stronger, Beth?  Because you haven’t seen me break yet?” [454]
She wanted to love, yes, but safely, without demands, from a distance.  She wanted Wanda for her own loud, strong, vigorous dark Madonna.  Part of her froze and tucked in when Wanda wanted to make demands back, when Wanda wanted to talk about her aching legs or to worry about her sons or to be sullenly angry and defeated: when Wanda asked her to be her friend [456-7].
I haven't read that much of Angelou's work, but from what I have read I get the impression that she made her own weaknesses and fears clear enough.  She must have gotten so tired of people attaching themselves to her, demanding to be mothered and inspired.  It's no tribute to her to turn her into a wise, powerful oracle who was always on top of things, a "loud, strong, vigorous dark Madonna" who'd make you whole if you but touched the hem of her garment.  Michelle Obama did better than Winfrey in this regard, recognizing that Angelou was honored better by learning from her weaknesses as well as her strengths.  I wonder who was there for the adult Maya Angelou when she had bad dreams.