Angelou's 'Song' completes the cycle

April 07, 2002|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

A Song Flung Up To Heaven, by Maya Angelou. Random House. 212 pages. $23.95.

Malcolm X is murdered at the beginning of this, Maya Angelou's sixth and final memoir. Martin Luther King dies at its close. Maya Angelou, activist, nightclub singer, poet, playwright, dancer, knew them both. Malcolm had invited her to work with his fledgling Organization of African-American Unity. Dr. King had enlisted her in the poor people's march he was planning at the time of his death.

Having returned from four years in Ghana, Angelou is horrified at the calm after Malcolm's death. She had expected a riot; none is forthcoming. That he was "killed by black people as he spoke to black people about a better future for black people and in the presence of his family" makes his death doubly unbearable.

Angelou writes, passionately, as a nationalist, unlike Malcolm himself at the time of his assassination. That he had been saved from harm by a white driver while he was driving in the Holland Tunnel surprises her. "You believe that, Maya?" Malcolm had asked. "I said yes," Angelou writes, "but I found it hard to do so." Yet few white writers might be capable of Angelou's insight into the profound importance of this great leader: "It took a long time to make Malcolm," she mourns.

Angelou struggles to find her creative voice. She sings in a Hawaii nightclub, acts in Medea, and in search of an editing job is humiliated by Norman Cousins at Saturday Review of Literature. Cousins' arrogance "almost" causes her to see herself as "just another colored girl out of place." But she is too strong for that.

This 39-year-old expatriate, a black woman with few financial resources, finds what she needs. A patron offers her an allowance. Among those available for emotional comfort is James Baldwin, who comes magically alive, a brother, small and brilliant, like her biological brother Bailey.

As after the death of Malcolm she had headed for Watts, Angelou is drawn to Harlem after Martin Luther King dies. Here she meets the sorrow she had expected after Malcolm X's demise. "If King was dead, who was alive?" she cries. A man explains: the overwhelming eruption of pain this April of 1968 was "all about Malcolm." The two great figures are mourned simultaneously: "a lot of people loved Malcolm but we didn't show it."

Despite Angelou's plans for activism, this is not a political book. Angelou doesn't ponder whether a mass outpouring, communal outrage over Malcolm's death might have prevented Dr. King's assassination. There is no reflection on the goals of the poor people's march, or of Malcolm's new organization of unity. She rejects the Black Panthers because of the personal morality of Eldridge Cleaver, yet offers a pass to Huey P. Newton, whom history may not absolve. When her African lover demands, "why would you [Americans] kill President Kennedy?" she offers no insight.

What shines forth in these few pages is the woman herself: humane, a mother worried about her teen-aged son, a citizen of the planet. At her mother's kitchen table at the end of this charming volume, Angelou sits down and writes: "What you looking at me for. I didn't come to stay." It is the first line of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She has come full circle.

Joan Mellen is the author of 15 books, including a novel, three biographies and seven volumes of criticism. She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is completing a biography of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.

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