While many American poets have languished, regardless of race, creed, color or excellence, the savvy and ever-seductive 74-year-old Marguerite Johnson, a.k.a. Maya Angelou, has parlayed statuesque looks and modest talents as actress-dancer-singer into a 30-year role on the literary stage that is, indeed, phenomenal. In 1993, at the behest of President Clinton, she became the second poet in U.S. history to recite an original poem at an inauguration. Few poets can spark a smidgen of the controversy generated in 2001 by Angelou's undisclosed cut of the estimated $50-million in sales for writing greeting card verse, a pursuit for which she is superbly suited. Purportedly the final installment of her serial autobiography, "A Song Flung Up to Heaven," appears only a few months after the first of her Hallmark card line and seems calculated to encompass celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, African American history month, National Women's month as well as her 74th birthday this month, National Poetry Month.
It might be assumed that Angelou would take her honorary doctoral degrees, make a graceful bow and retire from the literary round table with celebrated reputation intact. Alas, a dignified departure is not the trait of the greedy when one more traipse to the trough is offered. Once again, Angelou dips into her past to offer up an emotional repast that would starve a skeleton.
I vented my bias against celebrity autobiographies at the outset of a favorable review of Angelou's "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes" (Book Review, Aug. 13, 1986), in which I stated that I usually find them "self-aggrandizements and/or flushed-out elaborations of scanty press packets." Relieved, I summarized "Shoes" as "a thoroughly enjoyable segment from the life of a celebrity!"
No can do with "Song."
"Song" is a sloppily written fake, bloated to 214 pages by large type and widely spaced chapter headings, more than half its 33 chapters averaging two to four pages. Powers exhibited in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" have deserted her in "Song." Her titillating confessions and coquettish allusions come off as redundant and hollow old tricks. She not only engages in her usual name-dropping but shockingly makes that the book's content. Shamelessly, she cannibalizes the reputations of three major black figures: Malcolm X (Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), James Baldwin and King Jr., using them as linchpins on which to promote her specious pose as an activist.
"Song" opens with Angelou's return to the United States from Ghana in 1964, a time when she looked to plunk herself into the sociopolitical fray. She spends time in San Francisco, in Hawaii and in L.A. (west of the Harbor Freeway, where whites were the majority) before moving to New York City, living above the concerns of a new generation of angry young blacks.
With unflinching piety, she skips her days as a dancer and restyles herself as a militant, fostering the illusion that she was at the core of the civil rights and black power movements. Rather than substantiate this, Angelou plays the adolescent game of being the first to tattle on others when one is guilty: "The same people who don't give a damn now will lie and say they always supported him [Malcolm X]." Throughout "Song," Malcolm's name is a mantra as Angelou smokily extols "the importance of his life and of his death" without exposition. She has forgotten the swift reliability of the 1960s underground grapevine. Had she joined the Organization of African-American Unity (I belonged to the Compton branch), it would have been news coast to coast. The dead (including Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, who died tragically in June 1997) cannot contradict her--which may partly explain the 16-year lapse between "Shoes" and "Song." Meanwhile, Angelou artfully plays the race card, like the muse Euterpe or Sister Flute, coochie-cooing admirers out of shirts and socks, transforming bigots into simpering ninnies and academic cowardice into five-figure honorariums.
If "Caged Bird" put Angelou at the fore of those braving fiction's devices to enhance their truths, in "Song" she regresses, making it a textbook example of the danger inherent in that technique: misinterpretation. For example, taken alone, Chapter 19 might approximate any single woman's search for work on hostile turf but, when wedded to Chapter 25, it becomes a "choose" in street parlance--straight out of novelist Iceberg Slim--making Angelou, in her 30s, seem less the ingenue ward and more the procurer when setting up her benefactor with a lady friend.