By Maya Angelou
Reviewed By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
Titles usually give a sense of what a book is about. One of my mentor’s, Lee Maracle, has taught me to think about the title of a book before opening it. Together, Lee and I thought about the classic Go Tell It To The Mountain by James Baldwin.
“What does the title say to you?” said Lee. Sitting in her office I immediately said, “Slavery.” Running from captivity, praying to Creator, sending messages through secret networks, all came to mind. I could have been wrong but that’s what came to me.
With Maya Angelou’s collection of poems Just Give Me A Cool Drink Of Water ‘Fore I Diiie I thought about similar things: people kidnapped and forced to cross an ocean while barely fed; working the field with little or no water; the thirst for freedom; the thirst for change after supposed freedom was achieved. I am also reminded of some of the original people of the stolen land called Canada who live on reserves with no clean drinking water available in what is supposed to be a first world country.
The title also has a hint of how Angelou’s people talked in her time: “’Fore”. Reading the title without knowing who wrote it, some readers could guess what region of Amerika the author is from. They could guess that it was a person of colour. They could guess what types of stories are enclosed in the cover.
Angelou’s emphasis on the last word “Diiie”, the tripling of the letter “I”, the prolonging of the word’s end, taking three times the time to say the word let’s the reader know there is serious material soon to be read.
Split in two sections, When Love Is A Scream of Anguish and Just Before the World Ends, Angelou’s collection is very short, 46 pages in all, and hard hitting. It reminds me of the saying, “Dynamite comes in small packages”.
The thirty-eight poems that make up the collection explore race, relationships, skin politics, poverty, addiction, and class. Angelou uses slang, repetition, striking titles, and clever lines to keep the reader flipping pages.
They Went Home, the first poem in the collection, is autobiographical (like many of Angelou’s poems). The poet tells of the many men she has dated, the failed relations with them, and racism, body image.
A short poem, the title says it all: they (men) went home. Sad, true, short and bitter, the poem could and should be used in Women’s Studies and Equity Studies classes.
The men went home for various reasons. Maya’s skin, culture, and size were good enough to be enjoyed indoors, in secret, in top-down form, not uncommon in those times, and sadly, not uncommon now.
“Never once in all their lives,
had they known a girl like me,
But…they went home.
I had an air of mystery,
But…they went home.”
“But”, a word used as objection and opposition, is used well in They Went Home. Angelou was intelligent, fun, sexy, but…not good enough.
Today mixed-race relationships are still frowned upon in many places. Toronto, a place referred to as a melting pot and multicultural and talked of as a Utopia, still sees much of what Angelou writes, as does mainstream culture.
Recently, Elle Magazine was discovered to have digitally lightened the skin tone of black actress Gabourey Sidibe for their front cover. Have things really changed? Is black really considered beautiful? What type of black person is considered beautiful? What bodies are seen as beautiful?
Most men in our society look to the super model as a woman who is attractive: thin, tall, white or fair skinned. Bigger women and women of colour are put to the side, and when many men do date them it’s for fun, a short time, and often in secret such as in Angelou’s poem. The poet ends with:
“My praises were on all men’s lips,
they liked my smile, my wit, my hips.
they’d spend one night, or two or three,
Angelou explores the romaticism of something few talk about in the way she does: addiction. Music, movies, and books romanticize the life of gangsters, few explore the life of a junkie the way Angelou does. Her poem Letter To An Aspiring Junkie reminded me of a high school class I was in where a young and confused boy shared with the class that being a junkie would be a fun life. He needed Angelou’s poem. Many high-school students still do.
“Let me hip you to the streets,” says Angelou in her opening line. She tells her reader that she is informed on the topic she is writing about. It’s not arrogant; it’s real, it’s experience on the page.
“Nothing” is repeated throughout the poem. Both correct English and slang are used: “happening” and “haps”.
No haps man,
There is nothing glorious in the life of addiction. Whether you are a street walking sex worker, panhandler, thief, or high-class business executive, addiction isn’t fun. There is nothing happening that is good.
Angelou writes of “tomorrows gone up in smoke”; “riding that cold, white horse”—heroine; “a worn out pimp”; “African dreams on a buck-and-a-wing and a prayer”; all scary realities used to scare an aspiring junkie like the boy in my high school class.
Angelou mixes slang, poetic device, real life, and the verbal/written slap of a mother (this I know very well) disciplining a child, her child, everybody’s child:
“That’s the streets man,
In No No No No Angelou uses metaphor to explore the Vietnam War, slavery, and segregation.
The images left after reading the poem has you saying its title.
The “crackling babies in napalm coats” Angelou writes of live today in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other 31 wars happening across the globe today. She accurately holds “America’s White Out-House” responsible and has the book’s title embedded in the poem: “JUST GIVE ME A COOL DRINK OF WATER ‘FORE I DIIIE”.
The entire collection is almost without flaw. Angelou’s reputation is deserved and earned. So is my critique of her homophobia. While pointing out the difference between Black and white families in her ajoined poem The Thirteens (Black) and (White) Angelou compares the draft, addiction, and poverty in a Black family with a white rich family having queer kids.
“Your cousins taking smack, Your Uncle’s in the joint” is juxtaposed with “Your daughter wears a jock strap, Your son he wears a bra.” These have no relation to each other in the way Angelou uses them. Queer life is vilified and used as a weapon to point out the problems a family might have. Aspects of queer culture are made the problem in Angelou’s poem when compared with the problems of addiction and incareration in the Black community. To use her own words: big No No No No.
Many of Angelou’s poems hit hard and should be taught in high school and university English classes: Riot: 60s, My Guilt, The Calling of Names, On Working White Liberals, Sepia Fashion Show, and Harlem Hopscotch.
Some of Angelou’s poems are fun to read. Many are not. Anger arises when you see her critique of the problems she wrote about thirty and forty years ago still apply today. You might just need a cool drink of water at your side while ingesting Angelou’s words.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet next Wednesday September 29, 2010 for an inclusive interview with activist, poet, song writer, and Sci-Fi novelist Zainab Amadahy.