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poem is on the fence, next to my sister

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

 

Come. And Be My Baby

by Maya Angelou

 

The highway is full of big cars

going nowhere fast

And folks is smoking anything that’ll burn

Some people wrap their lies around a cocktail glass

And you sit wondering

where you’re going to turn

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

Some prophets say the world is gonna end tomorrow

But others say we’ve got a week or two

The paper is full of every kind of blooming horror

And you sit wondering

What you’re gonna do.

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

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To understand why I left Maya Angelou’s “Come. And Be My Baby” over a highway in suburban Maryland last week, you have to understand the atmosphere of persistent unease in the area and, more relevant, the nearly physical presence of the Cold War in my childhood home.

 

I was born three weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I don’t want to overstate the level of anxiety I grew up with, but my father’s periodic warnings that the Russians would be taking over soon were probably not conducive to childhood serenity. His paranoia was well-earned. He worked in the defense contracting industry, and as an ex-Naval officer, he had once been used as a guinea pig for nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. Everyone who lives in the D.C. area knows that the city has always been and always will be a target for enemies of our nation, but my dad actually planned for the day the target would be hit. When the bomb came, canned goods in the basement would keep us for a few days, and then we would move, all 13 of us, from wherever we found ourselves, to safer territory. He drew a circle around Washington with a radius of 200 miles to calculate how far we needed to go to avoid radiation poisoning. He decided that in the ensuing chaos of a nuclear bomb, our family meeting place was Morgantown, West Virginia. From my youngest days Morgantown, West Virginia was such an otherworldly place that when I first heard the Joni Mitchell song of the same name, I couldn’t believe Morgantown really existed. My sister remembers worrying, as a little girl, just how she was supposed to get to Morgantown by herself.

 

Let’s just say we didn’t take the stability of the world for granted.

 

End-of-the-world fears have been growing steadily everywhere in the last few months, but in Washington those fears seem a little more real. In this city of governance, policy and ideologues of every stripe, folks discuss ISIS, Gaza, Putin, and Assad like other people talk about the neighbor’s lawn upkeep. The memory of the Beltway Sniper is still fresh, and kids who grew up locked in for recess so they wouldn’t get picked off in the schoolyard now worry about taking the subway to work because of recent terrorist threats. At the time I left the poem, an ebola patient had just been transferred to NIH in Bethesda (now released, praise be), dangerous people were hopping the White House fence, and the headlines were full of the usual reports of international disintegration.

 

So I consider this poem-elfing a public service. I taped “Come. And Be My Baby” to the fencing on a pedestrian bridge along the Trolley Trail, a peaceful path that runs over and alongside some of the major arteries for big cars/going nowhere fast. (Notice that the bridge is fenced to prevent people from jumping off. There’ also this encouraging graffiti,

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which reads, “We all have a heart/we all breathe/the rest is up to you.”)

 

Of course, Maya Angelou’s poem is written in response to the struggles of African-Americans, but it transcends the particular as it lands, forty years later, as solace for anyone overwhelmed by all the blooming horror we live in.

 

Her call to love in the face of doom is a time-honored ploy of seduction. Think of “To the Virgins, to Make Much Use of Time” and these lines from “Dover Beach”:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

What’s different here, for me anyway, is that a woman is the seducer. Her tone is more mild than urgent, but no less effective. The punctuation lends her siren call its gentleness. She motions her lover over to her with the simple Come. Then she issues her invitation, as if she’s giving her lover time to consider it.

 

One line of the poem puzzles me: I got it. Is it I got it, as in, I got what you need, or is it I got it, as in, I understand all your worries? It depends on how the phrase is inflected. By chance I just found out I’ll have the answer soon. On November 4, an album of poems accompanied by hip-hop beats and gospel music that Angelou was working on when she died will be released. One of the tracks is “Come. And Be My Baby.”

 

I’ve listened to another one of the tracks (“Still I Rise,” link here–it’s great), and hearing Angelou’s deep and resonant voice makes me appreciate her poetry more than I used to. As Poetry Foundation writes:

 

Angelou’s poetry often benefits from her performance of it: Angelou usually recites her poems before spellbound crowds. Indeed, Angelou’s poetry can also be traced to African-American oral traditions like slave and work songs, especially in her use of personal narrative and emphasis on individual responses to hardship, oppression and loss.

 

And reading about her life makes me appreciate Angelou in a whole new way. I say this as someone who’s had a resistance to her. I loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as much as anyone, but the reverence afforded her poems and her person (and worse, her collaboration with Hallmark Cards on the Mosaic line), left me cold. The slightest scent of hagiography will send me running off in the opposite direction.

 

But what she lived through and what she accomplished! My goodness, I’ve come late to the party. Any one of the events of her life is enough for a movie, but her life is so jammed-pack with significant moments that The Maya Angelou Story would not be a believable script.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.56.13 PMShe was born in 1928 in St. Louis, but after her parents’ divorce when she was 3 or 4, was sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Over the years she was shuffled back and forth between her mother and grandmother, eventually landing in San Francisco. During one of the visits with her mother, when she was 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided in her brother, who told the family. The rapist was sent to jail, released after a day, and then murdered, reportedly by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou stopped speaking. She blamed her speaking out for his death.

 

With the help of a teacher, the appropriately named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou started speaking four or five years later. And then her life took off. She became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar driver while still in high school. She gave birth at 17 to a boy, and worked as a waitress and cook to support herself and her child. She married a white man, a Greek sailor and musician, despite the difficulties of interracial marriage at the time. She studied dance under Martha Graham, and formed a dance partnership with Alvin Ailey before he became famous.

 

She sang and danced at a nightclub. She recorded a Calypso album in 1957 and wrote and performed in an off-Broadway review called Calypso Heat Wave and later a film based on that show. She toured Europe in Porgy and Bess. As she traveled, she taught herself the language of every country she visited. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and a West African language called Fanti.

 

In 1959 she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending James Baldwin who became her mentor. Upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak, she became an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.51.49 PMIn 1961 she performed in a Jean Genet play, The Blacks, along with legendary actors Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones. She moved to Cairo with her son, where she worked as an editor at an English language newspaper, and on to Ghana where she served as an administrator at a university.

 

Angelou was devastated by the assassinations of her close friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Shortly after she produced a 10-part documentary on the blues.

 

She wrote the first of her seven autobiographies in 1969 (the last one published when she was 83), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote a screenplay, she wrote soundtracks, she acted in the television mini-series Roots and several other shows, she wrote music for singer Roberta Flack (listen here) and B.B. King (and here). She gave the inaugural poem for President Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. In 1996 she directed a feature film with Wesley Snipes. Along the way she published cookbooks, earned over 50 honorary degrees and awards–a Tony, an Emmy and the National Medal of Freedom among them–and in her last few months worked on the posthumous album I mentioned earlier.

 

She is exhausting. A lifetime of nonstop creativity.

 

In the poem I left on the bridge, Angelou lists three antidotes to struggle and stress: drinking, drugs and love. But her amazing life suggests a fourth one.

 

Creative work, in case you skimmed over that long biography.

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