Pulled it from around the waist of the world
and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes!
She called in her soul to come and see.
She might now her silken pinions try to rise from earth,
and sweep th’ expanse on high:
From Tithon’s bed now might Aurora rise,
while a pure stream of light o’erflows the skies.
Phillis Wheatley Kidnapped at age 7 in West Africa, American slave, 1753–1784
I was born in the Congo.
I walked to the fertile crescent and built the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that glows only once in every hundred years falls
into the center, giving divine perfect light.
Nikki Giovanni, from Ego Trip
O N E: S T. L O U I S
Maya Angelou arrived in the world by way of St. Louis, Missouri on an early spring day in 1928: April 4, to be exact. Spring in St. Louis lasts about five minutes; thus, were we able get a glimpse of her at the age of one month, we would see a tall, red-faced, crabby baby, dripping in the sub-tropical heat. That’s what all St. Louis babies look like until the beginning of November.
Like so many other African-Americans, Maya’s father had migrated to St. Louis from the rural South, seeking to put a distance between himself and the region’s poverty, racism, and increasing white violence. Black people did make better lives for themselves in the urban North, but it took decades of hard, hard struggle for the Great Migration, as it came to be known, to produce decent working class communities, and, later, a Black middle class. They quickly discovered that the North was no promised land. In fact, the 1920s were marked by an unprecedented wave of white mob violence that swept northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Topeka.
St. Louis was both less welcoming and more familiar to southern African-Americans than its peers further north. The city is actually only about 100 miles from the cotton fields of northern Arkansas, and remains at heart a southern city. In fact, the notorious St. Louis Race Riot (read white mob violence) led the way in 1917, preceding the violence of the 1920s by a good five years.
The Great Depression was tightening its chokehold on the nation’s throat by the time Maya was three years old.
TWO: CALIFORNIA IS WHERE YOU GO TO LEAVE
There’s nothing you can do to make the grown-ups stay.
What’s this? It’s the children who have to go away!
_________ Δ _________ Δ ___________ Δ ___________ Δ _____________
The same sun follows the train across the huge land, so the children know that it is always dark now in California. They hold themselves very still in their seat, not even opening their food boxes, and getting up only when they are forced to lurch to the restroom together. They are, respectively, three and four years old, their parents are divorcing, and their father has put them on a train in San Francisco with notes pinned to their buttonholes.
____ A Dream for Maya and Bailey _____
But eventually, they can cross up to the front car holding hands – and look now, by the time they reach Missouri, Maya and Bailey are RIDING that train. They are standing up straight, they are standing on top of the Ozark Mountains, they can see past the top of the sky , they are blowing the wind where they want it to go.
Finally, when the land becomes flat again, Maya and Bailey hear the Mississippi River, still miles ahead and humming to itself. That’s how they know when to lean to the right, turning the train south and steering it into the cotton fields of Arkansas.
T H R E E: S T A M P S, A R K A N S A S
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.