Maya Angelou knew how a laugh could be a survival tool

BY  
Author and poet, Maya Angelou, poses for a portrait in Washington, D.C. in 1992. Photo by Dudley M. Brooks / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Author and poet Maya Angelou poses for a 1992 portrait in Washington, D.C. Photo by Dudley M. Brooks / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Back in 1988, Maya Angelou described to a predominantly white crowd in Salado, Texas, how a maid’s smile inspired one of her most enduring poems. She says she wrote it to honor a maid she once watched ride the bus in New York City.

But it was the woman’s laugh that caught Angelou’s attention.

The unnamed woman, who was carrying two shopping bags, laughed whenever the bus stopped abruptly. She also laughed when it stopped slowly.

“I thought, hmmm, uh huh,” the poet told the crowd, verbalizing her internal thought process. Angelou, who was also an author, performer and activist, was a keen observer of the world around her.

“Now, if you don’t know black features, you may think she’s laughing, but she wasn’t laughing,” Angelou continued. “She was simply extending her lips and making a sound — ha, ha, ha, ha.”

“Oh, I see. That’s that survival apparatus,” she says.


The scene appears early on in the PBS documentary “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” airing tonight as part of the “American Masters” series. The poet, who died in 2014 at age 86 before the completion of this film, recounts many of her life’s memories in the documentary. In several moments, Angelou is seen upending someone’s worldview.

The reaction shots of the Texas audience, for example, are telling. People hang onto the cadence of her words. With this poem, Angelou invites them to empathize with the maid and Angelou’s recognition of the painful history that drives the motivation behind the woman’s laughs.

Angelou demonstrates by widening her lips like a rubber band, resistant to keeping up the facade. And the laugh — the ha-has — grows increasingly desperate every time Angelou, with tears pooling in her eyes, mimics the maid’s hollowed laughs in her poem:

“Seventy years in these folks’ world, The child I works for calls me ‘girl’.

I say, “Ha, ha, ha, yes, ma’am,” for workin’s sake, I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break.

So — ha, ha, ha, ha — I laugh until my stomach ache, when I think about myself.”

Rita Coburn Whack, who co-directed and co-produced the documentary, said she’s seen Angelou recite the poem several times over the years, often times intermingling it with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1892 poem, “Masks.” Angelou often alluded to those masks as a form of survival for black people in America in her work, Whack said.

“The mask was the two-facedness that black people had to have in the country to survive,” she told the NewsHour. “To grin and bear it, and then to bear the unbearable that this is who they were.”

The maid’s story, excerpted in the documentary, is also embedded in a larger poem of Angelou’s, titled “For Old Black Men.” The poem describes fathers who “nod like broken candles” and who “laugh to shield their crying.”

A year earlier, in another reciting of the poem, Angelou states it more plainly.

“Black Americans, for centuries, were obliged to laugh when they’re weren’t tickled and to scratch when they didn’t itch,” she said.

“I don’t think we often enough stop to wonder, ‘How did that black man feel?’ when his throat starts to ache … when you must cry, but you won’t,” she added.

Video by YouTube user Pogmog

The fact that this was not fair and there was nothing you could do about it was a common thread in Angelou’s work, Whack said. Recall the maid’s “too proud to bend and too poor to break” line.

“The poem struck her very deeply because it wasn’t just the observation of the maid, but it was all of her life,” Whack said.

The nearly two-hour documentary, airing tonight, is but a snapshot into a life and career that echoes moments from Angelou’s 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The film covers the poet’s treks to Africa, her performance as the White Queen in Jean Benet’s play “The Blacks,” and her work as a civil rights advocate, among other milestones.

Interview subjects in the film also described Angelou as a “consummate performer,” who sang and danced long before she penned autobiographies. Special mention must be made for her time as a calypso singer in the 1950s when she adorned vinyl LPs as “Miss Calypso.”

Video by YouTube user kaldurahm

Most notable, perhaps, is when Angelou is heard speaking about growing up in the Jim Crow South in Stamps, Arkansas.

“I was terribly hurt in this town, and vastly loved,” Angelou says in the film of her hard-won time spent there as a child.

Her memories are punctuated with good times, too, often associated with her brother Bailey and her grandmother, who taught her to read. But Angelou also remembers how her grandmother, who owned the only black-owned store in Stamps, was disgraced when three white girls came to the store one day, stripped down nearly naked and showed themselves to her.

“The atmosphere was pressed down with old fears,” Angelou said of the town in the documentary.

Angelou was also raped — “I won’t say severely raped, all rape is severe,” Angelou once said — when she was nearly 8 years old, which she also discussed in “Caged Bird.” At the time, women, much less black women, didn’t talk openly about being raped.

Photo by Ron Groeper

Photo by Ron Groeper

The film also delves into Angelou’s later involvement with civil rights advocacy, including work done with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Guy Johnson, Angelou’s son, described how his mother stood her ground when police rode into a 1960 protest on horseback.

To deflate the police intimidation, she pulled out a huge hairpin and stuck it in a horse. The sergeant riding on top who fell off. Angelou believed that when you see things that are wrong, and don’t say something, nobody benefits, Whack said.

Johnson, 71, said a five-part series would be needed to document his mother’s “gigantic life.” She has known “times of sadness and total depression,” but she realized that wasn’t “constructive,” he added.

“If you want to do more than survive, if you want to thrive, you have to do so with grace, passion, compassion and joy,” Johnson told the NewsHour. And that meant speaking to the “common denominator of humanity,” he added.

Angelou’s works spoke empathetically, as with the maid. They spoke personally, with Angelou mining her own life experiences. And they spoke universally.

“She spoke from the black perspective because she knew that best, but she addressed to what was human in us all,” Johnson said. “And her message has to do with equality and justice for all human beings.”

Johnson said his mother demonstrated this during his son’s fifth grade graduation. Angelou walked around the class and Johnson remembered her saying, “Somewhere, there’s someone graduating fifth grade who’s going to find the cure to cancer, going to find the cure to poverty, who’s going to be able to take us to the stars.”

And then she turned around and said, “Why not you, young man? Why not you, young lady?”

Angelou believed that “within the human being, there’s the capacity to solve all of our difficulties. If we give the total mental capacity of the species, if we allowed that to be realized, we could resolve everything,” Johnson said.

Angelou communicated this when she wrote and publicly read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the first inauguration of former President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Video by The Daily Conversation

In that poem, she invoked the struggles of Native Americans and African Americans, among others, but sought to dwell on how “human beings are more alike than we are unlike.” Our differences, Angelou said, enriched humanity.

Here on the pulse of this new day,
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Watch the new documentary “American Masters — Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” which premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday, February 21 on PBS. Check your local listings.

SHARE VIA TEXT