07 February 2017

Maya Angelou: We Wear the Mask/When I Think about Myself/Song for the Old Ones

It's Black History Month, all y'all,
And there is some amazing shit to see,
During February,
The shortest month in the year,
And all the year round,
And the world goes round,
And round and round and round and round.

When I was in high school, back during the last century, Bill Moyers aired a special on PBS covering a colloquium on Evil. Yes, on Evil, itself--these were the sorts of things that interested me when I was in high school. I videotaped it on VHS and still have that videotape.

It was my introduction to Maya Angelou, that chameleonic, kaleidoscopic, polymath and autodidact of American Letters and performance. I was bound by her spell and her deeply humanistic openness, immediately. I encourage you to watch her segment from that colloquium, in which she reads three poems.

The segment begins with her reading her poem for Clinton's inauguration; moves to an earlier piece about her home town, Stamps, AK; continues to the colloquium in question, during which she discusses her rape and five-year silence; and ends with her reading of some three poems. I encourage you to watch the entire clip.

Three poems, one by Laurence Dunbar and two by Maya Angelou:

We Wear the Mask/When I Think about Myself/Song for the Old Ones

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O my God, our tears
To thee from tortured souls arise.
And we sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world think otherwise,
We wear the mask!

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that’s walked,
A song was spoke,
I laugh so hard, I almost choke,
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world.
The child I works for calls me "girl";
I say, “Yes ma’am,” for working’s sake.
I'm too proud to bend
And too poor to break,
So, I laugh, until my stomach ache,
When I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side,
I laughed so hard, I nearly died.
The tales they tell, sound just like lyin',
They grow the fruit, but eat the rind.
I laugh, until I start to cryin',
When I think about myself,
And my folks, and the little children.

My Fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank,

And they nod, like broken candles,
All waxed and burnt profound
They say 'But, Sugar, it was our submission
That made your world go round.'

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block,
The chains and slavery's coffles,
The whip and lash and stock.

My Fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound,
They say, 'But Sugar, it was our submission
And that made your world go round.'

They've laughed to shield their crying ,
They shuffled through their dreams
They step 'n' fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.

I understand their meaning,
It could and did derive,
From living on the ledge of death,
They kept my race alive.

By wearing the mask.

Paul Laurence Dunbar and Maya Angelou, We Wear the Mask/When I Think about Myself/Song for the Old Ones, 1892, 19-something, Angelou's poem dating is not coming up on Google, which is its failure. The colloquium on Evil took place in Texas in 1988.