If Maya Angelou Had Been Born 60 Years Later
Image: Talbot Troy via Flickr
If Maya Angelou had been born 60 years later, and had been 26 today instead of dying at 86, she likely wouldn’t have been published. She would have been met by the publishing world with the question: who do you know? Even with her work in the Civil Rights movement and her connection to the Harlem Writers Guild as well as her connections from the theater community and various art forms, she still wasn’t a sure shot for publication.
If the answer had been no one, she would have found it extremely difficult to downright impossible to get her foot in the door. She would have been in an agent’s slush pile, and while we would love to think that her brilliance would have gotten her noticed amid the other manuscripts, we also know that a poor girl from Arkansas has a lot working against her and many successful writers experience a lot of rejection along the way. How much rejection is enough to get an author-to-be to change their mind about writing?
And let’s say that she did break out of the slush pile and obtain an agent. The next question would be what is your platform? How many Twitter followers to you have? What is the reach of your blog? Know any famous writers who may be willing to blurb your book? How can you contribute to the marketing? Someone would have crunched the numbers to try to figure out whether it was worth buying the book for how many copies they would predict it would sell. They would have looked at the writing quality for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and weighed it against the subject matter and then examined that against the last book to hit the marketplace that was similar in nature.
She wouldn’t have been a professor at Wake Forest University. Maybe, if she had published enough, she would have been brought on as a temporary lecturer. At least until the next hot writer came along. But let’s be frank about academia — it’s no more welcoming than the publishing world. There is stiff competition for teaching positions. For an African-American woman who never went to college much less earned a PhD, the idea of obtaining a faculty position in this day-and-age seems unlikely, even with Maya Angelou’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement and literary world.
There is no question that Maya Angelou lived through a very difficult social time, one in which the colour of her skin brought her a world of judgment. But she also lived through a time when the arts community sat up straight when they found enormous talent, and the academic community left their eyes and ears open to receive and utilize said talent.
The lesson of Maya Angelou’s life is to leave your mind open to possibilities. That there is so much raw talent in the world, so many good thoughts, so many change-makers lying in wait. We are lucky that her voice bubbled up to the surface; that we didn’t miss out on her contributions to the world.
A long time ago, I taught an eight grade women’s studies elective. Every day, I made the girls read aloud Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” starting in a whisper and ending in a yell. I hoped that if they said aloud this poem every single day for a whole year that they would internalize those words and remember for the rest of their lives that they don’t need to walk with their head bowed. I have no clue what became of those students. All I know is that it changes you to recite every day: