Curate a Library to Help You See: in Maya’s Words

With a light brightly shining on the ugly face of police brutality and racial inequality in the United States of America, the whole world has stood up,

has begun to question systemic racism across the countries of the world,

has pledged to stay standing until we achieve an anti-racist normality.

Against the bleak backdrop of a global pandemic, this has sparked something in many of us: a desire to grow from simply not doing bad to actually contributing to the good.

You shouldn’t have any trouble finding resources online – the charities to donate to, how to help if you have no money, books you should be reading from non-fiction starter kits to these two extensive community reading lists, and black owned-bookshops to buy from (UK/US).

Angelou became Hollywood’s first black female movie director on Nov. 3, 1971. She also wrote the script and music for Caged Bird, which was based on her best-selling 1969 autobiography. She had been a professional singer, dancer, writer, composer, poet, lecturer, editor and San Francisco streetcar conductor. | © AP via WUNC.org

You may have begun to see a theme here – that books are central to our global reeducation on contemporary racial injustice; that reading will, for many of us, be how we begin our journey to positive contribution. And, as you may have seen already on social media, the aim this week is “to Blackout bestseller lists with Black voices,” to buy/borrow/swap/share any two books by black writers.

I’m not going to add my ignorant voice to the knowledgeably recommended best books on race, but I will remind you that fiction is important too, and has the power to teach a great many lessons. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, for example, are amongst my favourite novels. My current read is so far fantastic. It is my introduction to Maya Angelou. It is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I’m not even going to talk about Caged Bird, which is autobiography, as I’m only part way through. Instead, I am going to put you in the care of Maya Angelou’s own words. I am going to let her talk directly to you about her life, about reading, and libraries, and the power that they hold. I hope that it inspires you to keep reading, widely,

to remember that reading and supporting black authors, publishers, and booksellers is helping,

that to contribute to the good, first you need to see…

Angelou speaks during a memorial service for Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, at Riverside Church in Harlem, N.Y., on June 29, 1997. |© Emile Wamsteker/AP via WUNC.org

All information belongs to everybody all the time. It should be available. It should be accessible to the child, to the woman, to the man, to the old person, to the semi-literate, to the presidents of universities, to everyone. It should be open.

Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.

Maya Angelou (b. 1928), began her career as a dancer and writer. 1957 portrait dressed for her part in the Caribbean Calypso Festival. | © Everett Collection/Rex USA via WUNC.org

To show you … how out of evil there can come good, in those five years [Angelou was completely mute for five years after being raped as a child] I read every book in the black school library. I read all the books I could get from the white school library. I memorised James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. I memorised Shakespeare, whole plays, fifty sonnets. I memorised Edgar Allen Poe, all the poetry — never having heard it, I memorised it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupassant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling — I mean, it was Catholic kind of reading, and Catholic kind of storing.

Out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness… And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.

President Obama presents a Medal of Freedom to Angelou during a ceremony at the White House on Feb. 15, 2011. | © Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP via WUNC.org

We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings. I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honourable.

– Maya Angelou, American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist
(1928-2014)

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Who will you be reading and supporting this week? Whose words will you turn to for our collective development? Let me know below; I’ll share my finds on Instagram once delivered!

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

– The ever-wise Angelou

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Keep reading with New Gothic Voices: an Interview with New Gothic Review, and if you’ve taken something from this post, consider contributing a little. Thank you.

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