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Maya Angelou's uncomfortable facts and truths

Maya AngelouFeminismMartin Luther King Jr.University of MichiganMalcolm XRutgers UniversityOpinion

Caution: The following tribute to the late, great author-poet Maya Angelou may be hazardous to some of my touchier readers.

The previous paragraph is called a "trigger warning," a disclaimer of the sort that often has been applied to online discussions about rape, sexual abuse and mental illness. In recent months they have spread to a place where power struggles can be most intense: college campuses.

Student leaders at the University of California at Santa Barbara passed a resolution in March that calls for professors to issue trigger warnings and allow students to skip class before presenting "content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder."

Similar motions have been proposed at Oberlin College, the University of Michigan, George Washington University, Rutgers University and other prestigious schools, according to news reports, to require warnings when course materials are assigned that could shock or alarm some students.

To which I ask, what is the purpose of literature and other arts if not to occasionally shock or alarm?

Trigger warnings are presented as a civilized way to alert students that some particularly challenging material is coming up. Fine. But that decision is better left to the classroom instructor than to an outside body of students or administrators.

It is important think about people's feelings and avoid unnecessary distractions. But trigger warnings also lead to a hypersensitivity about how we think other people might feel when educators should be offering more challenges to help them to improve how they think.

Maya Angelou understood. Her groundbreaking 1969 memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," despite its many honors, also has often appeared on the American Library Association's annual survey of books most often banned by schools and libraries.

It is not surprising that the book's storyline would make educators reluctant to assign the reading of "Caged Bird" to students younger than, say, high school. Angelou's life story, beautifully told, is that of a black girl who grew up in the racism and sexism of the Depression-era South, was raped at a young age by her mother's boyfriend and was traumatized so badly by the experience that she stopped talking to everyone except her brother for five years.

Yet her story continues to her recovery and maturation, partly under the healing guidance of a family friend who prodded Angelou to read books — lots of books — from a local library.

Other hardships would come in her life, including becoming pregnant at age 16. But so do many triumphs. She excelled as a writer, poet, singer, dancer, actor, movie director and activist with Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., among other leaders.

Her legacy is immense. Before "Caged Bird," Richard Wright's "Black Boy" and Claude Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land" reigned on most radar screens as quintessential stories of growing up black in 20th-century America. At a time when the women's rights movement was rising, she quietly offered a female-centered vision that enriched everyone's view of black life in America. She also offered a model to everyone of perseverance against great odds and despite the burdens of earlier trauma.

With its graphic story of Angelou's rape and her self-imposed silence, "Caged Bird" sounds like a likely candidate for trigger warnings, which would offer students a no-questions-asked excuse to avoid it. Yet, by immersing us in her own traumatic memories, Angelou skillfully suggests the healing and inspiring spirit of renewal and perseverance — as captured in her famous poem "Still I Rise." It begins:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Right on. Efforts to make classrooms more comfortable for everybody are commendable, but they should not inhibit our ability to cope with the world as it is.

Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/ pagespage.

cpage@tribune.com

Twitter @cptime

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Maya AngelouFeminismMartin Luther King Jr.University of MichiganMalcolm XRutgers UniversityOpinion
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