As a complement and preparation to this event, in the spring of 2009, I taught a class about Maya Angelou. The event did not happen until late April so we had plenty of time to prepare. It was cross-listed between English, Women's Studies, Humanities (before we had an American Studies designator) and had multiple sites taught via compressed video. There were 40 students in this class and most were eager to have an opportunity to read Angelou's work and learn more about her. That's why they took my class. But this is not why I taught this class.
One student immediately dropped the class, noting that he thought this was a "read and write about it kind of class." We certainly read a lot--all of Angelou's autobiographies, all of her poetry, her short stories, her book of essays, and her children's books. We also watched videos of Angelou and considered her politics and her work as an African American woman writer. The opportunity to teach about Maya Angelou is an opportunity for engaged, critical, interdisciplinary education.
As my students know, I don't just teach about the great works or deeds of a person, even someone who is as great as Angelou. Instead, I asked students to consider Angelou in her social, cultural, and political context. I asked questions like "what is it about Angelou that makes her a 'hero' while other black women are vilified as dangerous or subversive?" And, "why I am I teaching this class about Angelou instead of a class about bell hooks or Angela Davis or Audre Lorde, for instance?" These are just two of the hard questions that we don't ask about our heroes.
I taught this class to give the students an opportunity to consider Angelou--her life and her work--deep and wide. And so even though I began the class proclaiming to not be a fan, and to not really love her work as her many fans love it, I learned a lot about Angelou and I really enjoyed reading her collected body of work. She certainly had a long, full life and has been an influential figure through decades of political shifts. She challenged racism and sexism and told her stories without fear or apology. She should certainly be on our list of heroes.
But we should see our heroes in more complicated light. The work I assigned for this class reflected the complicated nature I wanted students to explore. Students wrote academic papers, many of them analyzing her work and some of them critically considering her work in context. Some students took a stab at their own creative writing. Many dealt with their own histories of abuse. Students also created their own Angelou-inspired children's books. They were asked to share what they had learned in class in a public setting, and many took Angelou into elementary and high schools. (And colleagues and I held a "Teaching Maya Angelou" workshop for teachers in three locations in Maine.)
The night of the event we had a "Welcome Table Potluck" where students could either make dishes from Angelou's cookbook or make their own recipes and tell their own stories. This remains one of my favorite assignments ever, and students brought friends and family to our pre-event potluck and post-event dessert and discussion. Some of us kept hoping that Angelou might make a surprise appearance, but I am sure she had no idea that this co-event was happening. I want to believe, for my students, that if she did, she would have stopped by ... at least for the grub.
The students embraced every assignment with passion that paid tribute to the works of Maya Angelou. One student even took on the project of collecting students' works and creating a book that was given to Angelou as a gift. The sad thing is, with all of this work that my students did, we don't know if Angelou ever received the book. Here's what happened:
When people hear that I taught this class and that Angelou visited campus, they assume I got to meet her. Not even close. (And I certainly didn't expect to meet her, ever, and I am okay with that.) I am not sure that anyone even ever told Angelou that there was a class being taught about her work. When I suggested that students write letters to her before the event, the organizers of the event pretty much freaked out. Because of stipulations in the contract (and no doubt due to her age), Angelou's visit was tightly controlled. There was a long list of don'ts and a limited number of people who could meet her. Any breech of this contract and they could walk away with our (very hard-earned) money. Understandable.
But what was not understandable to my students was why they could not present her with the gift of the book they created for her. Instead, the mayor of Augusta was invited to present her with the key to the city and the students' book was (supposedly) left in her backstage dressing area. I am sure that Angelou has received many, many such honors--the key to every city, the honorary doctorate, the accolades of millions. But, she may or may not have received a heart-felt collection of work produced by UMA students in her honor.
And this is one of the problems of heroes. The higher we hold you up, the harder it is for you to see the people. The more we scramble to provide appropriate honors (those that mayors and presidents deliver), the more we block out the honors of the little people who matter the most. I don't fault Angelou here but the layers of lawyers and keepers and contracts and event organizers and PR people who decide what an event like Maya Angelou speaking at a small, open-access university in Maine should be about.
I have been waiting for the opportunity to tell this story and, unfortunately, it is Maya Angelou's passing that has prompted me to share this "remembering." But it is an important lesson for all of our heroes--dead or alive. We made you heroes and we will examine every inch of your life and work so that we can better understand ourselves and our world. Then we'll look to see where we can make change.