by Lindsey E. Jones
Recent scholarship in the history of black women and the carceral state illustrates the extent to which systems of criminal justice and law enforcement have both historically failed to protect black female victims of domestic violence and criminalized black women who rise up in their own defense.
Black Girls, Domestic Violence, and the Limits of Self-Defense
by Lindsey E. Jones
This article previously appeared in the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.
“Legal systems in this country explicitly and implicitly render black women defenseless against intra- and interracial violence.”
The case of Bresha Meadows, an African American teenage girl in Ohio, is a sad commentary on the failure of the state to protect victims of domestic violence. After a lifetime of watching him physically and psychologically abuse her mother—and of being subjected to threats and verbal abuse, along with her siblings—Bresha allegedly shot her father to death while he slept on July 28, 2016. While her mother’s family and her attorney consider her actions to have been in self-defense, the county prosecutor has charged Bresha with aggravated murder. It remains to be seen whether she will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult. At stake is the possibility that Bresha, who marked her fifteenth birthday in juvenile hall just weeks after her arrest, could spend the rest of her life in prison if convicted as an adult.
While the case is making its way through the courts and the families of Brandi Meadows (Bresha’s mother) and Jonathan Meadows (Bresha’s deceased father) share conflicting stories with news media about the latter’s personality and propensity toward violence, as well as their conflicting opinions about premeditation versus self-defense, it is important to note that this case is neither isolated nor entirely new. Recent scholarship in the history of black women and the carceral state illustrates the extent to which systems of criminal justice and law enforcement have both historically failed to protect black female victims of domestic violence and criminalized black women who rise up in their own defense.
“Survivors of intimate partner violence dramatically overrepresented among incarcerated black women.”
Historian Kali Gross, in providing historical context to the case of Marissa Alexander, argues that the state’s willingness to condemn this woman for defending herself against an abusive husband points back through centuries of American history to “the legacies of an exclusionary politics of protection whereby black women were not entitled to the law’s protection, though they could not escape its punishment.” Gross traces the ways in which “racialized, gendered notions of protection” have, from the seventeenth century on, shaped legal systems in this country that explicitly and implicitly render black women defenseless against intra- and interracial violence. She argues that this exclusionary politics of protection fuels the current mass incarceration crisis, with survivors of intimate partner violence dramatically overrepresented among incarcerated black women.1
Bresha Meadows’s case exemplifies Gross’s concept of the exclusionary politics of protection. This past May, Bresha ran away from home to the home of an aunt, Martina Latessa. Latessa, a police officer working in a domestic violence unit in Cleveland, was forced to return Bresha to her father, who had reported the girl as having been kidnapped by her aunt. Latessa reported her brother-in-law to Family Services, which resulted in an agent interviewing Brandi Meadows about the allegations of abuse—as Jonathan Meadows sat beside her. Neither law enforcement nor the state bureaucracy could protect Brandi Meadows and her children from this abuse, which she and her family assert intensified after this incident. As a result of the state’s failure to end the cycle of trauma in her family, Bresha Meadows took matters into her own hands—and was charged with aggravated murder, for which she could potentially spend the rest of her life in prison.
Gross’s essay compellingly reveals the intersections of race, gender, and class in black women’s hyper-vulnerability to domestic violence; state failure to prevent or put a stop to said violence; and the too-common outcome of black women being incarcerated for offenses resulting from attempting to defend themselves against domestic violence. However, as the case of Bresha Meadows illustrates, there is another vector of identity that often doesn’t appear in our historical analyses of black females and the carceral state: that is, age.2
“For black women in the Jim Crow South—as in antebellum times—domestic violence was constitutive of domestic labor.”
Where race, gender, and class have worked together to create the conditions discussed above, the erasure of age difference has historically created disadvantages for black girl victims of domestic violence. One prominent example recently provided by historian LaShawn Harris is that of Virginia Christian. Often referred to as the first woman to be executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Christian was in reality a seventeen-year-old girl when she was killed by electric chair in 1912—a fact that her advocates hoped would persuade the state to show her mercy.3
Virginia Christian belonged to a working-class black family in Hampton, Virginia, and needed to work in order to contribute to her household, including her disabled mother. From the age of thirteen, she served as a laundress for a middle-class white family named Belote in Hampton. During a dispute about missing jewelry that turned physical, Virginia killed the matriarch of the family—a crime she confessed to committing in self-defense. Harris argues that “Christian’s act of self-defense delineated working-class African American women’s impetuous ways of protecting their bodies and their often last attempts to seek and secure long-awaited personal justice—especially when legal protection seemed beyond their reach.” While there is no archival evidence that Ida Belote had laid hands upon Virginia Christian prior to this altercation, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that for black women in the Jim Crow South—as in antebellum times—domestic violence was constitutive of domestic labor, the racially prescribed set of occupations for black women and girls.4
Christian’s response was most immediately triggered by Belote’s accusations of theft and subsequent physical assault on March 18, 1912, but it is conceivable that she was also responding to other physical and psychological traumas accumulated over three years of working in the Belote household.
The analogy from Virginia Christian in 1912 to Bresha Meadows in 2016 is imperfect, but these cases both illustrate the extent to which the state has failed to consider age in evaluating black girls’ actions in self-defense from domestic violence. Sadly, over a century later, Bresha’s advocates find themselves making very similar demands of a system that hasn’t changed enough since Virginia’s trial, and employing very similar tactics in their pursuit of mercy for this abused adolescent girl.
“In the minds of whites, the accused, regardless of her age, was a deviant and vulgar black murderess that had to be punished for her crime.”
In the case of Virginia Christian, the Commonwealth of Virginia ignored evidence that Christian committed the crime at sixteen years of age in order to prevent her minority status from impeding its plan to execute her. Harris argues that, “in the minds of whites, the accused, regardless of her age, was a deviant and vulgar black murderess that had to be punished for her crime; essentially, Christians’ race trumped her gender and age. By denying Christian of her adolescent status, the State of Virginia sought to punish her to the full extent of the law.”5
Black and white Americans wrote letters and circulated petitions pleading with the Commonwealth to consider Christian’s youth as a factor in her crime and her punishment and to commute her sentence from execution to life in prison. In the end, neither Christian’s appeal to self-defense, nor her advocates’ appeal to adolescence, could spare her from the lethal retribution of the state.
In a throwback to the campaign to spare Virginia Christian’s life in 1912, advocates of Bresha Meadows are writing letters and circulating petitions in the hope that local prosecutors take into account her age and her status as a survivor of domestic violence as they proceed with charges against her. Because of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons that it is unconstitutional to execute a person for a crime committed under eighteen years of age, the death penalty is not on the table for Bresha. However, because prosecutors could decide to try her in adult court, it is a real possibility that she could be sentenced to life in prison.
A century after Virginia Christian’s advocates passionately and strategically petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia for life imprisonment, Bresha’s advocates argue that no adolescent should spend life in prison—especially not a girl pushed toward drastic action by a lifetime of trauma and abuse. There is thankfully still time for the prosecutors of Trumbull County to give real weight to Bresha Meadows’ traumatic life history, and to the fact that it spans fifteen short years, as they decide what action to pursue.
Lindsey E. Jones is a PhD Candidate in History of Education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and a 2016-2018 Pre-doctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation project, “‘Not a Place of Punishment’: the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, 1915-1940,” historicizes the education and incarceration of black girls by examining Virginia’s only reformatory for delinquent African American girls. Follow her on Twitter @noumenal_woman.
1. Kali N. Gross, “African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Protection,” Journal of American History 102, no.1 (2015), 25–33.
2. For a contemporary examination of black girls, interpersonal violence, and the carceral state, see Jody Miller, Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality, and Gendered Violence (New York: NYU Press, 2008).
3. Lashawn Harris, “The ‘Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Virginia Christian’: Southern Black Women, Crime & Punishment in Progressive Era Virginia,” Journal of Social History 47, no.4 (2014), 922–42.
4. See, for instance: Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Sarah Haley, “‘Like I Was a Man’: Chain Gangs, Gender, and the Domestic Carceral Sphere in Jim Crow Georgia,” Signs 39 (Autumn 2013).
5. Harris cites “a 1910 Virginia statue prohibiting death to ‘any child under seventeen years of age who is charged with any felony, and never having been heretofore convicted in any court of a misdemeanor’” (931).
The Million Woman March was a protest march organized on October 25, 1997, on the Benjamin Franklin Park Way in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The march was founded and formulated by Phile Chionesu, a grassroots activist, human rights advocate, Black Nationalist/Freedom Fighter, and owner of an African crafts shop.
The below statement was issued as the basis for the national call to all Black women to come together in Philadelphia, PA
Million Woman March Mission Statement 1997
The Million Woman March is being implemented by Black Women who interact on grassroots and global levels. Black Women who understand the necessity of rebuilding our foundation and destiny as a people, and that we must in many respects begin at the origin (the root) upward.
Women of African Descent who reside, struggle and interact in grassroots communities have analysed and assessed unlimited issues and problems. Many of which have resulted in the deterioration of African-American and African people overall. The Million Woman March is capable and ready to create and implement strategic methods of resolving such matters.
The Million Woman March provides us the opportunity to prioritize the human and environmental issues. It will collectively enable us to develop an assertive and aggressive movement to insure the participation and impact of people of African Descent.
It is our belief that it will require collective and comprehensive efforts to develop for determination the process and systems that will be utilized to regain the proper direction of our family structure. By acknowledging and applying the strength and resources that exist within the United States and throughout the world, we will rebuild to strengthen our foundation. It will take the procurement of mechanisms that will bring about the appropriate solutions.
However, there has been various forms of disconnection.
As a result, we no longer bond as a family unit, we no longer teach and prepare our children in the way we wish for them to go. How do girls learn to become women? Who is responsible for teaching morals and values of womanhood? Have we not been the moral sustainers of life? As teachers of life have we failed or are we just existing?
The Million Woman March will revive life as we once exemplified it:
< Great Grandmother taught Grandmother
< Grandmother taught Mother
< Mother taught Me
< I will teach YOU
We will no longer tolerate disrespect, lack of communication, negative interaction, anti-social and dysfunctional behavior and the denial that problems such s these affect our ability to progressively and productively move forwarD. Our focus is centered around the reasons why and what it will require to eliminate this DESTRUCTION.
For Colored Girls Like Korryn Gaines And The Black Men Who Hate Us
What is it to be a black woman in America. For the burden of both racism and misogyny to lay at our feet.
Korryn Gaines was no fool. In her short 23 years she was all too familiar with the carnage of black bodies. This familiarity with state sanctioned executions empowered her to raise unafraid black children. With her thick Baltimore accent she instructed her five-year-old son to record the Baltimore County police who’d pulled her over for not having registered tags on her car. That day, she was ready to die. Her life was spared, but she wouldn’t be so fortunate again.
Her Instagram shows a warrior woman who believed in her right to legally bear arms. She was uninterested in cow-towing to the very system that kills even its most “perfect” victims. Instead of “hands up, don’t shoot!” shethought “#StopKillingUs is some begging ass shit” was more appropriate. Baby girl had no desire to be pleasant or respectable.
So when Baltimore County police showed up to her apartment to serve a warrant for her arrest over misdemeanor traffic violation charges, she knew it could very well be the day she took her last breath. In her last moments she took to Instagram to record her cute, chubby cheeked five-year-old son, her asking the questions, him predicting the outcome.
“What are they trying to do?”
“They trying to kill us.”
What happened next doesn’t matter much because the result is the same. It’s always the same. Korryn is dead. The police will lie. The media will corroborate the police’s lies. The public will blame her for her death. There will be no justice. Officials will call for peace. Family members are left to raise her children. And shortly we will have all moved on to grieve the next victim of police violence. The narrative is so familiar it shows up in our dreams. The tears feel the same as the ones we wiped the last time we mourned a black person who we did not know. Only this time those tears will only be cried by black women. All black lives are not mourned equally.
Because Korryn dared to be a vocal black woman — one who may or may not have been legally armed — there is no outcry for her except from other black women. There will be no outraged celebrities. Protesters won’t flood the streets in cities across the nation. Public officials will not demand accountability for the officers who killed her. Presidential candidates will not condemn the police department for their failure to de-escalate considering a child was present. President Obama will not tell the nation Korryn could’ve been his daughter. News and cable networks won’t profit off her death by hosting Town Hall meetings. Black men will not grieve her as they have the long list of black men killed similarly. In fact, black men will adopt the language of our oppressors to blame her for her own murder.
Black men couldn’t wait to vocalize their hatred for black women. “It’s looking mighty justifiable right now” and “Korryn Gaines deserved to die” and “Basically asked for it” and “She decided to be reckless with her son and her own life” and “Korryn Gaines was an ignorant, loud mouth little girl.” Those are just a few. Tucking in their hatred is hard to do, even when two black children are left without a mother.
These are the same black men who automatically don’t trust police accounts in killings where the victim is a black man, but are quick to believe Korryn was pointing a gun at the police when they entered her home. Despite her documented recordings of run-ins with the Baltimore County police, black men aren’t thinking maybe this woman was targeted. Black men are not playing detective to figure out the truth in this strange story the police tell of using the landlord’s key to enter her home. Black men are not rallying for an end to a system that sends a SWAT team to someone’s home over non-violent traffic violations. Black men are not calling foul, because even if she was armed, white suspects with guns are apprehended alive all the time. Black men are not questioning how she could hold her phone to record, hold her son and allegedly hold a shotgun in her hand all at the same time. Black men aren’t sympathetic to her developmental disability due to lead poisoning, which could’ve affected her reasoning the day she was murdered. Nope. Black men are saying she deserved to die because she was a crazy fool and a shitty mother for daring to be free.
Ain’t that peculiar?
Black men must remove the word revolutionary from their vocabulary. One minute it’s “fuck the police” and the next it’s Korryn was reckless. Black men love the iconic photo of their hero Malcolm X looking out the window of his home, shotgun in hand to protect his family, but Korryn possibly having a gun means she deserved death. They cheer on Nat Turner but who does Korryn think she is to protect her family. Black men either don’t know what revolutionary really means or think the word is reserved for them solely.
Remove it from your tongues.
It’s not just about Korryn. It’s about black womenfolk being de mules of the worldat the hands of black men. Folks called Sandra Bland sassy. Said had she not talked back she would’ve lived. No one showed up for the Rekia Boyd rally in NYC. When we talk to black men about the dangers of street harassment we are met with death and rape threats. Statistics show violence against black women is mostly at the hands of black men, but we’re shouted over for bringing that up. Then when we tell black men that we, too, are killed by police, we are told now is not the time to be divisive. You will get to us after we take care of our “kings.”
But you see, that doesn’t work for me. My liberation is not going to come after. I’m not suffering through black men’s harmful misogynoir while black women’s freedom becomes a ‘maybe we’ll get to it in the next lifetime’ non-priority. I’m not adding a “not all black men” caveat to my truths in order to coddle hurt feelings. My life is literally on the line. And my freedom can’t wait.
Either cis black men are going to center black women so we can all get free together, or my freedom fighting will be reserved for black women and black queer folks. Do what you want with that. But my freedom can’t wait. I won’t wait for you to see my humanity while I fight for yours.
While you’re denying our humanity, remember this: Putting off black women’s liberation for tomorrow is a dangerous game. Because ain’t a single liberation movement survived without us.
To Korryn and Sandra and all the black women who refuse to bow, refuse to shutup, we got you. Rest easy knowing black women said your name and refused to let them forget.
by Danny Haiphong
Airheaded commentators compare Beyonce’s media products and Kanye West’s off-hand quips to Muhammad Ali’s heroic political struggle and genuine sacrifice in the Sixties. That’s nonsense. “Beyonce can dress up in Black Panther dress and subsequently fail to use her platform to educate others about the Black Panther Party precisely because she is selling a product, not building a movement. The same goes for Kanye West and all corporate artists.”
Keep Muhammed Ali’s Legacy Away from Beyonce and Kanye West
by Danny Haiphong
“The article reduces the state repression of Ali received as a mere byproduct of his ‘political stance’ and proceeds to compare the treatment Ali received to the criticisms of Beyonce and Kanye West.”
A recent article in Medium took to task those who mourned the death of Muhammad Ali.
“Conservative America,” according to the author, tells figures like Beyonce and Kanye West to be quiet while it celebrates the life of the late world boxing champion and activist. Self-proclaimed “hipsters” and “culture critics,” however, often take the luxury of ignoring concrete analysis for the allure of identity political liberalism. What the author makes no mention of are the concrete differences between Muhammad Ali and celebrities of the Kanye West variety. To analyze these differences would force the author to examine the motion of history and political struggle beyond the liberal lens.
Identity political liberalism can be defined in the piece as such. Since Muhammad Ali is celebrated for his opposition to war and racism, one would be hypocritical to criticize Kanye West and Beyonce for their particular forms of opposition. The author clarifies this position, stating:
“Kanye West had the courage to call out The President of United States for ignoring the people of New Orleans. Beyonce had the courage to embrace a movement that has been criticized by the police and mainstream America. If you can’t stomach their political statements there is no way you can say you are a fan of Ali because no ‘entertainer’ of color has been more in your face about condemning America’s racist political crimes than Muhammad Ali.”
This argument commits a logical fallacy of significant consequence. The author equates Beyonce and West’s achievements on the political stage to Ali’s actions in the 1960s. This conclusion derives from a purely subjective position. While it is true that Kanye West and Beyonce have made political statements in the past, no analysis of the particular character of these statements is given. Such an examination reveals exactly what propels cultural figures into political action and what contradictions ultimately limit the usefulness of their political action.
“The author equates Beyonce and West’s achievements on the political stage to Ali’s actions in the 1960s.”
In the 1960s, a revolutionary upsurge emerged from the heroic Black freedom movement and the connections it made to the anti-imperialist struggle around the world. The brutality and exploitation inherent in white supremacy and segregation influenced organizational formations, like the Nation of Islam (NOI), to call for more radical alternatives to the non-violent resistance that characterized the Civil Rights Movement. Ali was influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X, who at that time was being trained to lead the NOI. The US war in Vietnam was nearly a decade old by the time Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X and the NOI took a firm stance against the war in Vietnam. Eventually Malcolm X would take opposition to war a step further by arguing that Black Americans had more in common with the people of Vietnam than the US government.
It was the development of international solidarity in the Black liberation movement that compelled Muhammad Ali to make his famous declaration against the Vietnam War and travel to Cuba and Palestine. Revolutionaries such as Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and WEB Du Bois in the first half of the 20th century paved a path for insurgent Black revolutionaries in the second to position the struggle for emancipation in the US alongside the global fight for self-determination and socialism. It was argued by organizations such as the Black Panther Party that Black liberation could not be achieved without a socialist arrangement of society on a worldwide scale. Muhammad Ali’s political life must be placed in this context. The article reduces the state repression of Ali received as a mere byproduct of his “political stance” and proceeds to compare the treatment Ali received to the criticisms of Beyonce and Kanye West. Yet what isn’t said in the article is how state repression of an entire movement helped produce the corporate artists that the author compares to Ali.
“Corporate subsidiaries such as Warner Music Group control the music and careers of signed artists and enforce the ideological regime of imperialism through the sale of their processed music.”
The US counterinsurgency war against the Black liberation movement was geared toward the complete and utter destruction of revolutionary possibilities in the US. This war included the creation of an entire intelligence program to undermine, at times with deadly results, theefforts of Black revolutionaries. It also included reforms in the fabric of US society. Starting in the late 1970s, the ruling class opened seats in local, state, and federal political office to a select few Black Americans. Increased access to political office for the Black elite, and helped isolate radical and revolutionary forces calling for social transformation. It is here that the Black misleadership class emerged. The creeping crisis of imperialism made the influence of this class all the more necessary as mass incarceration, surveillance, and unemployment would come to characterize Black life in the US from the 1980s onward.
Over the last three and a half decades, the world capitalist system has undergone a process of decay that has necessitated the monopolization of all sectors of US society. An increasingly disposable and criminalized Black labor force coincided with the consolidation of the corporate media. The consolidation of the corporate media included the monopolization of the music industry that created Kanye West and Beyonce. Today, six corporations own 90 percent of the media and the same is true about the record industry as a sub-sector. Corporate subsidiaries such as Warner Music Group control the music and careers of signed artists and enforce the ideological regime of imperialism through the sale of their processed music.
“Using Ali to defend Beyonce or Kanye West gives undue attention to those who don’t deserve it.”
This is why, despite all the praise she has received, Beyonce’s music is void of political content, and why she invests millions in sweatshop production. Corporate control over the music industry also explains why Kanye West has become such a twisted and maligned figure in public eye. Ultimately, Black labor is only useful when it degrades, dehumanizes, or sanitizes Black struggle and Black people. Beyonce can dress up in Black Panther dress and subsequently fail to use her platform to educate others about the Black Panther Party precisely because she is selling a product, not building a movement. The same goes for Kanye West and all corporate artists.
Mohammed Ali’s legacy must be kept away from the corporate gaze of the media. The ruling class has desperately sought to suppress the ideas of anti-imperialism and Black liberation ever since the movement that brought Ali’s politics to life was brutally repressed isolated. If these politics are going to be revived and applied in the 21st century, it certainly won’t be any of the corporate music industry’s “artists” that lead the way forward. Using Ali to defend Beyonce or Kanye West is not only fruitless, but also potentially dangerous. It gives undue attention to those who don’t deserve it. Instead of hiding behind “conservative America” in liberal fashion as identity political liberalism often does, the focus for a true movement for social transformation must be on uniting revolutionary ideology and practice among the exploited and oppressed. Only the grave diggers of the world capitalist system can force the celebrities of today to either help build a new world or be swept away with the old.
Danny Haiphong is an Asian activist and political analyst in the Boston area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Florida State Attorney Angela Corey will seek to triple Marissa Alexander’s original prison sentence from twenty to sixty years, effectively a life sentence for the 33-year-old woman, when her case is retried this July, The Florida Times-Union reports.
Alexander was convicted on three charges of aggravated assault in 2012 for firing warning shots in the direction of Rico Gray, her estranged husband, and his two children. No one was hurt. Alexander’s attorneys argued that she had the right to self-defense after Gray physically assaulted and threatned to kill her the day of the shooting. In a deposition, Gray confessed to a history of abusing women, including Alexander.
In September of 2013 a District Appeals court threw out the conviction on grounds that Circuit Judge James Daniel erroneously placed the burden on Alexander to prove she acted in self-defense, when she only had to meet a “reasonable doubt concerning self-defense.”
Judge Daniel originally slapped Alexander with three twenty-year prison sentences, but ordered that they be served concurrently. If Alexander is convicted a second time in July, State Attorney Angela Corey will seek consecutive sentences, adding up to sixty years in prison.
Florida’s 10-20-Life law imposes a mandatory minimum of twenty years in prison for anyone who fires a gun while committing a felony. Angela Corey’s prosecution team says it is following a court ruling that multiple convictions for related charges under 10-20-Life should carry consecutive sentences.
The advocacy group Free Marissa Now released a statement calling Corey’s move a “stunning abuse of power.” Members of the group say Corey is pressing for a longer sentence to thwart attention from accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, as well as recent failures in high-profile trials. Corey failed to secure murder convictions for George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn, two men who fatally shot black teenagers.
“Remember that when Marissa Alexander fired her warning shot to save her own life, she caused no injuries. Now she’s facing the very real possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison for that act of self-defense,” said advocate Sumayya Fire in the statement. “That should send a chill down the back of every person in this country who believes that women who are attacked have the right to defend themselves.”
The death of Dr. Maya Angelou provided us the opportunity to once again delight in her memoirs, which chronicle the eclectic, bohemian first half of her life. Yet, we know from her writings that such praise was often withheld as she pursued her dreams of being a dancer and poet while raising a young child as a single mother. How many times must she have been urged to settle down and give up her artistic and cultural pursuits, which time and time again left her broke and broken? While we now refer to Angelou as a renaissance woman, until she published I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in her 40s, her life resembled what is referred to in ghetto parlance as a hot mess.
This messiness is what we all fear. It is why rather than pursue our dreams, we settle into the lives expected of us. Cubicles and cul-de-sacs become the things of our imagination. Only happiness and satisfaction studies suggest they are not enough. A GALLUP Poll last year found that only 30 percent of U.S. workers are passionate about their work. The majority (52 percent) are unhappy with their jobs and put little energy into their work while another 18 percent actually hate their jobs and actively work to undermine coworkers. We sacrifice our dreams only to find ourselves restless, bored and frustrated in midlife having realized what Angelou told us all along; “making a living is not the same thing as making a life.” Worse still, we recognize the irony in discovering after layoffs, financial setbacks and divorce that the “mess” is unavoidable.
These unmet expectations and realization that youthful aspirations have been abandoned are suspected as the cause of feelings of discouragement and depression among those in midlife. The British think tank NatCen Social Research found that studies show that people between 35 and 55 suffer a dip in well-being. A separate study that analyzed data from “nationally representative” surveys in Australia, Britain and Germany found that the bell curve in well-being dips to its lowest point around the ages of 40 to 42.
Even those who choose to pursue unconventional dreams don’t escape these feelings, especially if such pursuits have come at the expense of nearly everything else. I abandoned life as a lawyer in favor of one as a writer, activist and entrepreneur. Now having entered midlife without any of our culture’s success markers — husband, children, two-car garage — I have had to answer, both to myself and to others, the question of whether the path I’ve chosen was a wise one. Reflecting on Angelou’s has helped me find the answers.
1. Be uniquely you.
Angelou described herself in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as “a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” She knew such a girl would’ve perished trying to conform to mainstream conventions. “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Instead of fretting over not being a swan, Angelou reinvented herself as a rare bird. As many biographers have noted, she won’t be remembered for her poems or plays, but for her memoirs and for being Maya Angelou. The key to discerning one’s authenticity is quite simple: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
2. When it comes to failure, be courageous.
Angelou was a marvelous failure. Her most noteworthy stage performance, playing the seamstress in the two-woman play Mary Todd Lincoln, earned her a Tony nomination but closed on opening night. The rolling stone never stuck to one thing for long. She moved from coast to coast, continent to continent, sometimes making poor childcare decisions, one of which resulted in her son’s brief abduction. She didn’t have a stable home or steady job until she was in her 50s, an age at which many are preparing for retirement. She divorced several times but would would never confirm the exact number, “for fear of sounding frivolous.” Aware of all her failings, Angelou was brave enough to look at herself. “We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay — and rise!”
3. Know who your friends are.
One would be hard-pressed to identify a significant black figure Angelou didn’t know. She danced with Amiri Baraka. Billie Holiday visited her home and explained the meaning of Strange Fruit to her young son. While a calypso dancer she worked with Alvin Ailey. James Baldwin gave her the introductions that would lead to the publication of her first memoir. These were people she deeply cared for, but in anEssence interview, she had this to say of friendship.
There’s a marked difference between acquaintances and friends. Most people really don’t become friends. They become deep and serious acquaintances. But in a friendship you get to know the spirit of another person, and your values coincide. Friends may disagree, but not about serious matters. A friend will stand for you when you are no longer able… Years ago one of the slick White women’s magazines asked if they could photograph me with my closest friends for an issue they were doing on friends. The editor wanted me to bring Oprah. I have 30 years on Oprah. She calls me her friend, her mother, all that. I am very close to her in a motherly way. So I told [the magazine], ‘I have three dear friends — Dolly McPherson, Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford and M.J. Hewitt — they are sisters to me.’
4. Believe you can do anything.
For Angelou, inexperience was never a reason not to take on an interesting job. Angelou’s only criterion was seemingly that a new occupation share little to no similarities with her previous one. At sixteen, she became San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar conductor and later passed herself off as an experienced Creole chef. She held jobs dancing in a nightclub, stripping paint from old cars, and singing Calypso. She knew nothing about being a journalist when she accepted a position as an editor for The Arab Observer,” an English-language magazine. She said of the experience,
I stayed at the Arab Observer for over a year and gradually my ignorance receded. I learned from Abdul Hassan how to write an opinionated article with such subtlety that the reader would think the opinion his own…I received a raise from Dr. Nagati, the respect of my fellow workers and a few compliments from strangers…
She made her television debut as Kunte Kinte’s grandmother in the acclaimed television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. And in the one-time high school dropout who never attended college became the Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
5. Forgive others and yourself.
In addition to enduring the injustices that came along with being poor, black and female in the South, Angelou was also raped as a child and beaten as a young woman. In a May 9th interview at her home she told Armstrong Williams, “I’ve learned that forgiving is one of the greatest gifts that I can give myself…And as soon as I do I feel lighter, brighter and better.”
In Gather Together in My Name, Angelou shares one of her lowest periods when she served as a pimp for two lesbian prostitutes and sometimes worked as a prostitute herself. In one interview, she said of the experience.
If you happen to fall into that sort of experience, what you have to do is forgive yourself. If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home — wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalized and your body not misused and abused. Get up. But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it.
In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Angelou tells of her midlife crisis which was accompanied by great sorrow. Returning to the States after the end of a romance in Africa, Angelou became a Civil Rights activist only to be witness to the Movement’s greatest tragedies. She was working with Malcolm X to establish his foundation when he was assassinated New York City. Three years later she was working as the northern coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was gunned down in Memphis on Angelou’s 40th birthday. For a time, Angelou withdrew from society unable to deal with the tragedy, but eventually she harnessed her grief and regrets to write her seminal work, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. From then on, she would rise at dawn and set out for the motel room where she would write. Her only companions were a Bible, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a stack of legal pads, and a bottle of sherry. Having written her way out of the worst time in her life, she credited it with her survival. “All my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated…Nothing will work unless you do.”
Angelou was a master of reinvention. She didn’t settle on a name until after her first marriage, claiming her childhood nickname and a twist on her first husband’s last name. For Angelou, change was essential. Perhaps more so when one decides nothing can be done at all. “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
Follow Yolanda Young on Twitter: www.twitter.com/yolandayoungesq