I'm not entirely clear on why the caged bird sings

Following up on yesterday’s post, in which I mused on the moral-political implications of making fun of Cynthia McKinney, the black-female-congresswoman-who-shall-not-be-asked-for-identification, I offer this passage from ?Saint Maya,? John McWhorter?s review of a memoir by Maya Angelou (pictured left).

McWhorter, I should note, has made something of a career of being the black guy who makes white people feel less guilty for the plight of black people, but he?s awfully smart at doing it, and he has a love of, and sympathy for, black culture that distinguishes him from some of the other black guys who?ve made a career of making white people feel less guilty for the plight of black America. More to the point, he happens to agree with me here, and give me some black cover. And ?Saint Maya? is a fantastic essay, with the kind of nuance that makes the Dexter go tingly. To the text:

When I was in college in the early 1980s, the black folksinger Odetta was invited to campus to perform. Clad in African garb and accompanying herself on the guitar, she weaved together inspirational songs and savory anecdotes garnished with ancient wisdom. She rocked the house, the young and mostly white students delighted to be sitting at the feet of a black Earth goddess "telling it like it is." I thought I had a good time. But later my white roommate shocked me by dismissing the whole thing. His problem with Odetta was her smugness, her obvious expectation that her audience bow to her moral superiority without question.

This threw me. I had a natural African American impulse to let this worldly-wise middle-aged black woman’s maternalism wash over me. And as a post-civil rights African American, I assumed that it was a white audience’s job to follow suit. I had never heard anyone question what was, in fact, a rather manipulative way of approaching an audience. One part of me questioned whether my friend was a "racist"; but I also knew that few white performers could have gotten away with the Odetta tone, and that since white eighteen-year-olds could not have played any part in the oppression that Odetta had encountered in her life, it was a bit of an act to require them to accept her saintliness without question.

The essay, which alas is available in full only to subscribers to The New Republic, ends with this elegant summary of Angelou?s legacy, which also speaks directly to the problem with McKinney?she?s an anachronism.

Angelou’s writings are the product of a worse and blissfully bygone America. White readers who feel enlightened enough about race issues to have wearied of being lectured about them may be put off by these books today. And a black person likely would not, and really should not, write a memoir in this style today. I must admit a guilty relief that the last volume ends in the late 1960s. I suspect that Angelou’s chocolate icons gliding through a vaudeville version of black history could speak only fitfully about our times, when Jesse Jackson (and even Al Sharpton) has replaced Martin Luther King, and victim politics has taken its place among the varieties of communal uplift, and black success has gone from happenstance to norm, and most African countries have slid into violent black-on-black despair.

During a fracas with white school administrators in The Heart of a Woman, Angelou asks: "How could the two women understand a black mother who had nothing to give her son except a contrived arrogance?" "Contrived arrogance" is exactly what Angelou seeks to give her readers. An outsider today might read this as the same kind of lordly superciliousness that my roommate sensed in Odetta. But contrived arrogance was once a useful and even natural form of defense against bigotry. Contrary to the insistence of a noisy fringe, it serves no valuable purpose today, and in this, Angelou’s books date themselves. I don’t quite see how readers can find art in these books, but it must be said that she has helped to pave the way for contemporary black writers who are able to enjoy the luxury of being merely individuals, no longer representatives of the race, only themselves.

As to whether McKinney’s "contrived arrogance" entitles the weary white masses to make sport of her, I’m not yet sure. There’s nuance there. Stay tuned.

Author: Dear Dexter

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