Watching a clip of Maya Angelou reading her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" for Bill Clinton's first inauguration, I was struck by how well I remembered it -- not just its beautiful, startling turns of phrase, but also her intonation, posture and delivery. She rules the dais. Behind her, throngs of white dignitaries -- including a baby-faced Clinton and the eternally earnest Al Gore -- listen, enthralled.
Without compunction her robust yet clipped voice begins: "A Rock, A River, A Tree/Hosts to species long since departed ..." While I contemplate her injection of the mighty mastodon into an inaugural address, she has already cut the prehistoric emperors down to size: "The dinosaur, who left dry tokens of their sojourn here on our planet floor ..." She stands before the most powerful people of the most influential nation on earth (It was the roaring '90s after all!), and reminds them that we will all one day be but dust and dung.
What a remarkable woman.
Although accused of solipsism -- and much worse -- by bloggers and writers at the conservative National Review, she had a genuine fan in Erick Erickson, editor of the website RedState. In his remembrance of her and her work -- "The Caged Bird Sang to Me" -- Erickson unabashedly proclaims, "I loved her mind and I loved her voice." He writes of his frustration with some of his colleagues on the right "who think nice things cannot be said of people on the other side of the aisle." Erickson, like so many readers worldwide, enjoyed the rhythmic quality of Angelou's work and its ability to connect him "to others, other times, and issues." Despite a life lived within Jim Crow brutality and merciless misogyny, Angelou thrived because of her stark honesty. But, Erickson points out, she did not write with bitterness or discontent.
Angelou died a celebrated writer and poet, but her interests were many and her moments of languor few. She worked as a fry cook, cable car conductor, actor, producer, activist, educator and nightclub performer. In the 1950s she teamed up with dance great Alvin Ailey (another deeply expressive soul), to perform a modern dance nightclub act called "Al and Rita." (Born "Marguerite Johnson" she later took her childhood nickname name Maya.)
Like Maya Angelou, Alvin Ailey -- the brilliant modern dancer and choreographer -- well understood the liberation that art offers. His renowned dance company was dubbed "Cultural Ambassador to the World" because it seemed to perform everywhere across the globe. Ailey harnessed his prodigious talent and ambition to express complex, painful -but ultimately redemptive -- stories of the African American experience. His company's signature piece "Revelations" is considered both a dance masterpiece and a tour de force of African American storytelling.
The physicality of the dancers -- their strength and beauty -- are absolutely stirring. Ailey brilliantly folds together classical and modern styles to vigorously, singularly, convey the astonishing ability of all of us to endure. The dancers' leaping -- all at once, upward, outward and inward -- brought to mind a tender fragment of a celebrated Angelou poem: "You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust/I'll rise." And in that rising, she implies, we do not just survive; we persist and thrive.
Thomas DeFrantz -- professor of African and African American studies at Duke University -- and Jennifer Dunning -- writer and critic for the New York Times -- have both written on Ailey's eclectic and electric dance style. Ailey combined vividly expressive upper body movements, a "modern top," with striking "unbroken" leg lines, a "ballet bottom," in all his dance pieces.
Ailey's exceptional ability to play with form and style in the dance world, and Angelou's willingness to re-invent biography make them creative kin. Ailey was unusual in the dance world because he did not insist that his dancers be trained in a particular technique before performing his choreography. He wanted them to fully infuse themselves into his pieces. In this way, some have likened him more to a conductor of a jazz ensemble than to a stern task master. He valued his dancers' interpretations of his ideas and felt this was a critical part of his artistry.
Angelou did not originally set out to change the parameters of autobiography, but did so essentially on a dare from Robert Loomis, who would become her editor at Random House. Loomis asked her to write her autobiography. When she balked, he told her that was just as well because it was "almost impossible" to write autobiography as literature. Her response? "I'll start tomorrow." Margalit Fox, writing for the New York Times, asserts that Angelou ably responded to the challenge. Her "prose style included a directness of voice that recalls African-American oral tradition and gives her work the quality of testimony."
Her agony, rooted in America's South, is neither bound nor defined by it. She sees herself connected to a human experience that includes "You, the Turk, the Swede ... Ashanti, the Yoruba ... Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare, praying for a dream." But she furiously urges us: "Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness ... Here on the pulse of this new day ... say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning." It is a classic Angelou revelation: our discontent, our disappointment could propagate like so much kudzu in fertile, inviting soil. Or we can choose to acknowledge the grime -- almost honor it -- and then dance with it. By finding its rhythm we subdue its power, and find the audacity to carry on.
I am certain that these two 20th century icons are dancing together in some earthy cabaret in the hereafter.