I Know Why the Caged Bird Mourns: Maya Angelou Remembered

My first ever post on this blog was inspired by Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When she passed away, I was devastated and I was trying to think about putting my sadness into words. Although this is hardly a fitting tribute, here is my humble opinion on what made Ms. Angelou such an inspiring person. This was published in the Books Section of the University of Warwick student newspaper The Boar, the link for which can be found here: http://theboar.org/2014/06/16/know-caged-bird-mourns-maya-angelou-remembered/#.U6Hma_ldVFM

Maya Angelou passed away on 28 May 2014, marking the death of the last great American poet. Since then, a lot has been written about her impressive body of work and the accolades she so deservingly won. Several tributes listed her as one of the leading writers of the civil rights movement, while others mentioned that, at the age of 86, she was still penning another book.

These column inches, while factually correct and often eloquently written, are not enough to do justice to the life of someone as influential as her. To call her a writer – even if one adds the word “great” in front of it – only tells half her story. Simply labelling her an icon, without understanding why, will not do either. What her bibliography and her achievements truly represent is a testament to the human spirit.

Born in 1928, Angelou experienced a World War, the civil rights movement, the end of segregation and the move towards a post-racial USA. While society might not have achieved that last part completely during her lifetime, it is remarkable to think of how much has actually changed in that period. As someone who wrote extensively in support of the civil rights movement, she helped to shape this change as much as it helped shaped her work.

When she was growing up, it would have been unthinkable for a black woman to recite poetry at a presidential inauguration. Fast forward to 1993 and she was reading out “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Nearly two decades later, in 2011, she was being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, a man whom she both admired and criticised for falling short of his potential.

Angelou was a part of one of the most visibly marginalised minorities in the Western world. She was unable to attend a racially integrated school as a child; now, her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is being read in classrooms across the world. That she could become such an indelible part of the literary mainstream is evidence of her perseverance.

Looking at how she approached her work, it is easy to see how she was able to achieve so much. While different groups might lay claim to her as being a writer, an activist, a humanitarian, or some combination of the three, Angelou preferred to think of herself simply as someone who liked to take on challenges of all kinds. Writing was, for her, a continuous adventure, akin to crossing a stormy English Channel until “finally you reach the other shore, and you put your foot on the ground” in jubilant relief, before plunging into the waves again.

But while that was a field she clearly revelled in – completing her seventh autobiographical piece in 2013 before starting her eighth – she was also an ardent believer in challenging discrimination more concretely. Having seen the success and possibilities of the civil rights movement, she became involved in global women’s rights movements, particularly against violence and abuse, as well as the move for LGBTQ+ rights like same-sex marriage.

Maya Angelou was a firm believer in standing up for what is right and she saw great beauty in the fight for justice. She considered herself best able to serve social justice movements with her writing because she was too humble to think she could play a more emblematic role. More importantly, she thought the fight for equality was too important for any one person to try and symbolise or take credit for it.

Despite her legacy, which had begun to take shape even before her passing, she considered herself “just a writer”. In the end, it was this unassuming outlook on life, as much as her powerful writing, that made her much more than that.

Gove Puts the “English” Back in the GCSE Syllabus

Here is a piece that I wrote for the Books section of the University of Warwick’s newspaper The Boar on Michael Gove’s recent moves to change the English Literature GCSE Syllabus. The piece here is the first part of the collaborative article (i.e., my section of it), which is exactly as it appears on the paper’s website at http://theboar.org/2014/05/31/gove-puts-english-back-gcse-syllabus/#.U4x9zPldVFM – with the exception of one typo being corrected:

Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently taken it upon himself to “streamline” the English Literature curriculum by removing such celebrated American books as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the syllabus. Alongside several other, lesser-known bans, the decision to axe these classic works of literature has naturally led to the question – why would anyone in their right mind do this?

Gove’s reasoning is to enhance the focus on British writers. He has gone on record saying that he wants pupils to empathise with Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet as much as they do with Lennie and Scout Finch. Whichmight sound well and good as far as intentions go, but the narrow-mindedness of only protecting local work goes against, and is detrimental to, the true strength of English Literature.

While a significant chunk of England’s literary heritage is in its direct output, an even larger and arguably more important part of it is how it has influenced writers from around the world. American-born Maya Angelou, whose work has also been cut from the curriculum, has spoken eloquently of how she considered the task of writing to be the equivalent of “crossing the English Channel”, testifying to the type of writing that has influenced her own work.

Particularly striking is the fact that authors from Commonwealth countries, whose early education was shaped by the GCSE syllabus, have been discarded as well. Notable among these are Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (A Purple Hibiscus), New Zealand’s Lloyd Jones (Mister Pip) and Australia’s Doris Pilkington (Rabbit-proof Fence). Clearly, the Education Secretary has a very territorial understanding of the term “English” Literature – he only endorses Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go) based on his British citizenship.

The most glaring mistake in Gove’s cuts is his refusal to acknowledge the universality and significance of such works as Harper Lee’s Mockingbird. While it might beset in a very specific historical US context, its exploration of justice and discrimination remains very relevant, perhaps even more so given the rise of subtle,institutional racism in this part of the world.

As someone who has studied under the British education system outside of the UK – having passed my GCSE’s in Bangladesh – I find it especially ironic that Gove’s decision, aimed at revitalising the syllabus, goes against everything that made the course so beautiful. When I was growing up, my English teachers had to fight to get American writers included in our classes, citing the UK’s readiness to embrace Lee and Steinbeck as a prime example of good education.

How sad then, just as the rest of the world has finally agreed to expand their horizons by including non-British writers in their curricula, that Britain should revert to an isolationist approach. Perhaps the sarcasm is well placed – it could just be that Michael Gove really hates the subject.