My First White Love: Maya Angelou On William Shakespeare

"During those years in Stamps," Maya Angelou writes of her childhood in Arkansas, "I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray and Henley, I saved my young and loyal passion for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois' Litany in Atlanta. But it was Shakespeare who said, 'When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.' It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it didn't matter anymore."

The Shakespeare poem she's referring to is Sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

She was startled by how well Shakespeare understood her. As she said, "I don't care what they told me, I was convinced he was a little black girl." There was something about her connection to the words, the ability of the Bard to understand so fully the human condition, that this little girl in Stamp, Arkansas saw him as herself. She grasped in his humanity her own. I could not help but think of James Baldwin's words, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

Those words of suffering and anguish that Shakespeare wrote back in 1609 spoke to a 12-year-old girl in the 1940's Jim Crow South.  For her, those were not just simply words on a page, they were her own experience. She said, "I found myself, and still find myself, whenever I like, stepping back into Shakespeare. Whenever I like, I pull him to me. He wrote it for me." How many of us have read a book that touched us so deeply and spoke to our own situation in such a way that it was as if the author were copying from our own journals? That is the power of great literature. We find connection; even to voices long silenced by the grave, though their words will never be. 

Angelou had already suffered a life of abuse: racism, poverty and sexual abuse. In Shakespeare's words, she could cry out. She could lament as he does to a "deaf heaven." His poetry gave voice to her pain. He gave her expression when she had none. And his words made her feel that she was not alone at a time when she was isolated from everyone by her shame at what had happened to her. I cannot help but make a connection to her own poem entitled "Remembering." 

Soft grey ghosts crawl up my sleeve
to peer into my eyes
while I within deny their threats
and answer them with lies.

Mushlike memories perform
a ritual on my lips
I lie in stolid hopelessness
and they lay my soul in strips.

Both Angelou and Shakespeare transform tragedy into a thing of beauty, of art. They give words to those who, like the young Maya, could not speak their own because they did not know them yet until they read them on the page. Years later, in a speech, Maya Angelou said, "Of course he wrote it for me; that is the condition of the black woman. Of course he was a black woman. I understand that. Nobody else understands that, but I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman." And he was because he was, as Walt Whitman understood, "I am large, I contain multitudes." And his Song of Myself is the song of anyone, of any race, creed, sexuality, or belief. 

Shakespeare is a black woman, and an elderly Asian man, and a Native American boy . . . He is all of us and his words are all our words. That is the power of great art. He wrote that sonnet not just for himself, not just to the mystery identity that he wrote them for, but for future generations who would feel alone, isolated and forgotten. He would give them voice as he gave Maya voice. 

Later in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou writes of a neighbor reading a passage from Charles Dickens to her, "When I finished the cookies she (Mrs. Flowers) brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time . . . 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...' Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymnbook?"

I love what Mrs. Flowers tells young Maya, "Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning." And they do. Words have power but it is the human voice that can give them "shades of deeper meaning" because when we read a passage or poem aloud, we are bringing something of ourselves to those words. Their words are spoken in our voice. 

The joy Maya Angelou gets from this moment is glorious. Maya writes, "Childhood's logic never asks to be proved (all conclusions are absolute). I didn't question why Mrs. Flowers had singled me out for attention... All I cared about was that she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me."

Literature, especially Shakespeare, gave Maya her voice back. Great authors know our hearts, know our experiences, know our thoughts and give rise to them in the words they write that come down through generations and speak to us and for us and allow us to have the power to write and speak for ourselves. Just as I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings has for so many, many others. As Oprah Winfrey writes in the foreword, "I was fifteen years old when I discovered I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. It was a revelation. I had been a voracious reader  since the third grade, yet for the first time, here was a story that finally spoke to the heart of me."

May we all find that author, that book, that poem that speaks to the heart of ourselves to understand that our circumstances are not solitary things of isolation, but deep-lived experiences of others who have come before us and cry out, "I know. I understand. You are me and I am you. Read my words and find your own voice."


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