The death of American poet Maya Angelou has been greeted with both grief and accolades for her contributions to the American literary canon. But it also has stirred memories of her early support for a controversial man, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In 1991, some viewed this as a strange contradiction.
Kim McLarin—a self-described progressive—teaches literature and writing at Emerson College and was thoroughly inspired by poet Maya Angelou.
“Maya Angelou was one of the first black women to speak very personably about her experiences, and to prove that one could transcend that experience, not to just overcome it but transcend it and go on to have an incredible life,” she said.
And McLarin particularly takes inspiration from what is considered one of Angelou's greatest works.
"'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,'—it was the first book by a black woman that I had ever read or even seen," she said. "I think it was a revelation. I think I was in the fifth grade growing up in Memphis and I remember very clearly just finding the book in the library, just stumbling over it, turning it around and seeing her face on the back of that book jacket and just being thrilled beyond measure because here was somebody that looked like me that had written a book. It launched me into who I am today.”
“She spoke so courageously and so forthrightly about all the traumas that had befallen her, the personal traumas that had befallen her; the damage done to her by people she loved and people she didn’t love and by those outside our community upon black women and we’ve been taught to be ashamed of, to be quiet and could not speak our truth, as Audrey Lord would later say, especially at the time; rape and abuse that were not often spoken aloud," McLarin said.
So McLarin, the author most recently of the memoir “Divorce Dog,” is bothered by what she considers the only blur on Angelou’s life—her support for Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.
“It’s the classic bind that many black women of that generation found themselves in, and I think that Dr. Angelou, she was of the position that she needed to support a black man who was seeking a position of power, regardless,” McLarin said.
In siding with Thomas, Maya Angelou sided against an African-American woman, Anita Hill, whose testimony in 1991 nearly derailed the conservative Supreme Court nominee. Hill—who now teaches at Brandeis University—accused Thomas of sexual harassment.
Angelou’s reason for supporting Thomas, even as vast numbers of African-American lawyers and academicians railed against him, was summed up in the conclusion to her 1991 New York Times op/ed, “I Dare to Hope.”
"Because Thomas has been poor, has been nearly suffocated by the acrid odor of racial discrimination, is intelligent, well trained, black and young enough to be won over again, I support him," she said.
The prophet in "Lamentations" cried, "Although he put his mouth in the dust … there is still hope."
Angelou spent her childhood in wrenching poverty in Arkansas; a childhood made worse by segregation and a brutal rape at the age of eight by a family acquaintance. This traumatic episode in Angelou’s life made her support of Thomas—in the view of many women at the time of the hearings—all the more mystifying.
The week Angelou’s pro-Thomas essay was published in the Times, feminist organizations were organizing press conferences to oppose his Senate confirmation. Also opposing the conservative jurist in 1991 were major civil rights figures, including Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School, who represented Hill and who wrote the argument against Thomas’ nomination in the hope of influencing the position taken by the national NAACP.
Ogletree found Angelou’s support for Thomas disappointing, but not contradictory.
“I don’t believe that there is a contradiction," he said. "I believe there was complexity. She could see how important it was to have an African-American man after Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. No question about that, and so she supported him as the reality of what we now have; that is, an African-American on the court. I disagreed with it, but I disagreed with a number of decisions she made, and she disagreed with a number of decisions I made, but I learned a lot from her and I don’t hold her support of Clarence Thomas against her.”
Kim McLarin agrees.
“It was disappointing," she said. "I think it was limited and it was surprising but I didn’t condemn Maya Angelou for it. I simply disagreed with her, vehemently.”
Actually, Angelou’s position at the time of the Senate hearings reflected a majority of African Americans, according to poll results. Black support for Thomas has dwindled dramatically over the decades.
Both Ogletree and McLarin say they will always regard Angelou first and foremost as a transcendent figure in America’s literary life and as an icon of civil rights history, in spite of her early support for Thomas. Yet McLarin wonders how Angelou, in later years, reflected on her famous op/ed and on Thomas’ voting record on the Supreme Court in siding with the majority, for example, in abrogating key parts of the Voting Rights Act and in favor of Citizens United.
“My mother had the same position, but she sees the truth now, and I don’t know if Dr. Angelou came to see the truth or speak of it or not,” McLarin said.
Far more important than Angelou’s support of Thomas in her famous op/ed, says McLarin, is the body of her work over 86 years, specifically “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“That book really is her magnum opus and the most important thing she ever wrote, and I think that brought to bear all of her talents and her witness as a black woman trying to live an authentic life in this society,” she said.
Why does the caged bird sing? Angelou’s answer to that question, says McClarin, is her most monumental achievement: The caged bird sings of freedom.