Maya Angelou Testified About the Jim Crow South

From the New York Times piece on the recently passed Maya Angelou: “Hallmarks of Ms. Angelou’s prose style included a directness of voice that recalls African-American oral tradition and gives her work the quality of testimony.”

Testimony. In the Alabama Southern Baptist churches I grew up in, we gave our testimonies. By that we meant our paths to salvation. We’d talk about the brief encounters with God and/or his people along the way, before the sinner’s prayer. In evangelizing, we call telling people about Jesus “witnessing” to them.

I was a young girl when I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou’s first autobiography. The NYT calls her a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South.”

We evangelical Christians know that sometimes many people need to witness to someone many times before they get saved. We call these touches which precede salvation “planting seeds.”

There’s no road to Damascus moment when it comes to understanding the horrors of American racism. No salvation or sinner’s prayer. But at some point I did get that I didn’t get it. I got that I could never really get it. I understood that it’s far, far from over. And I got that it reverberates through everything we see in the modern era.

I’m not sure exactly when I got that. I do look back and see where people planted seeds for me though. Jacob Sullum at Reason magazine planted some when he wrote about how the drug war has ravaged and continues to ravage black and Latino communities. Ta-Nehisi Coates did it when he wrote about redlining. And Maya Angelou did it for me, as a young girl, by testifying about the Jim Crow South. From the Times obituary:

But she remained best known for her memoirs, a striking fact in that she had never set out to be a memoirist. Near the end of “A Song Flung Up to Heaven,” Ms. Angelou recalls her response when Robert Loomis, who would become her longtime editor at Random House, first asked her to write an autobiography.

She demurred at first, still planning to be a playwright and poet. Cannily, Mr. Loomis called her again.

“You may be right not to attempt autobiography, because it is nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature,” he said. “Almost impossible.”

“I’ll start tomorrow,” Ms. Angelou replied.

Testimony. No one comes to Jesus, or to acknowledging systemic racism, through numbers or charts or fine-tuned argumentation, though they’ll generally misattribute their conversion to them later. Something has to open their eyes, and hearts, to those things first. That thing is testimony. Maya Angelou gave her testimony. She witnessed. She planted seeds. I’m forever grateful.

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