Af-Am poet disses Maya Angelou's new book, gets disinvited to book signing
August 19, 2002 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Af-Am poet disses Maya Angelou's new book, gets disinvited to book signing In this calm and thoughtful piece, smart, sharp poet Wanda Coleman reflects on the "furor" she caused in the Af-Am community with a savage review of Angelou's latest work. After the review appeared, she was asked not to attend a signing at a famous black bookstore for an anthology she participated in (story confirmed halfway down this page). She notes, "Critically reviewing the creative efforts of present-day African-American a minefield of a task." Also: Coleman on American poetry, Coleman recalls a mid-70's interview with Marley and Tosh and ponders black hair, Wanda's all-time top 10 books. [more inside]
posted by mediareport (26 comments total)

From her review:
In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors (sobbing embrace, my heart fell in my chest) and clumsy similes (like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting times) are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son's auto accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come without explication and schmooze substitutes for action . . . . There is too much coulda shoulda woulda. Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song Flung Up to Heaven seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn't a song.
I'm thinking of a two word review: "Shit Sandwich." (my thanks to "This is Spinal Tap.")

MARTY: Let's talk about your reviews a little bit...regarding 'Intravenus de Milo': "This tasteless cover is a good indication of the lack of musical invention within. The musical growth rate of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry."

NIGEL: That's, that's nit picking, isn't it?
posted by ColdChef at 12:15 PM on August 19, 2002

Does ANY group like having it's revered old farts slammed?
posted by HTuttle at 12:36 PM on August 19, 2002


This will probably take things far off-topic, but...

Why do all terms for, um, the "Af-Am" community eventually end up on the do-not-use list?

"Nigger" was replaced by "Negro", which was replaced by "Colored" which was replaced by "Black", which was replaced by "African American". What will be the shelf life for "African American"?

In each case, it seemed that the old word was then considered "bad" as were any of its ancestors.

Am I wrong about this? Does anybody know why this is?
posted by websavvy at 12:48 PM on August 19, 2002

Does ANY group like having it's revered old farts slammed?

The WWE?
posted by Shadowkeeper at 12:50 PM on August 19, 2002

From Saturday Night Live:
Maya Angelou Endorses Froot Loops
Maya Angelou.....David Alan Grier

Announcer: And now, Maya Angelou... for "Froot Loops".

Maya Angelou
: Toucan Sam, you leap on the back of the wind, lode stone to assorted fruit flavors, Phoenix of the dawn's wan smile. We gave you, Toucan Sam, life. You, Toucan Sam, give us loops of fruit. Fruity loops, Fruit Loopies, swimming in the churning, frothy mother sea of milk, Kellogg's appreciates consumer comments, P. O. Box 221, Battle Creek, Michigan, a prism of fruity color, a cornocopia of over forty fruity tastes. The orange, the apple, the grape, the pomegrante, the quince, the kumkwat, the kiwi, the planitain, the guava...

This has been Maya Angelou... for "Froot Loops".
posted by ColdChef at 12:51 PM on August 19, 2002

And, on the topic at hand:

Yes, it seems like a crappy thing for the bookstore to do. I'm guessing that Jonathan Franzen doesn't sell well there, either.
posted by ColdChef at 12:53 PM on August 19, 2002

Maya Angelou wrote a really moving book (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) I've heard her speak. She's an incredible speaker. Her poetry is pap, but occasionally moving pap. It's annoying when a person is elevated to a status she does not deserve, especially when pointing that fact out infuriates people who really have nothing to do with it. People treat an attack on one part of a thing (one book out of a body of work, one woman out of millions of African American women) as an attack on the whole.
posted by callmejay at 1:39 PM on August 19, 2002

Good post, media, I wasn't familiar w. Coleman's work.
was a bit disappointed that she didn't include Samuel Delany in her list, tho..
posted by slipperywhenwet at 1:56 PM on August 19, 2002

I just found Coleman's original review online; it's even more savage than the clips suggest. "Alas, a dignified departure is not the trait of the greedy when one more traipse to the trough is offered." Yow.

And here's the must-read original LA Times story about the controversy. The bookstore owner comes across slightly better here: "[W]hile there is obviously nothing wrong with thoughtful criticism, the tone of this review was personal and ugly and unnecessarily so. Nobody is censoring her, but we don't invite into our store people with whom we wouldn't want to be in the same room. Actually, I hope more people read her review, because then they will come around to our point of view."

It gets more interesting when you read that the store didn't regularly stock Coleman's work before the Angelou review appeared. The tensions apparently run deeper.

HTuttle: I'm sure the same thing happens in other groups, but Coleman is well-positioned to write about it in this case and I thought her historical approach was interesting.

websavvy: Coleman and others use "black" all the time; it's hardly been moved to the "do not use" list. I shortened African-American, which I use at work, for space.
posted by mediareport at 2:15 PM on August 19, 2002

With unflinching piety, she skips her days as a dancer and restyles herself as a militant, fostering the illusion that she was at the core of the civil rights and black power movements.

I assume the paragraphs beginning with that sentence from her original review are the kernel of her disinvitation--and if Coleman's allegations of Angelou lying about her activist credentials are correct, it makes the bookstore owner look even worse--can't show the icon's clay feet when the color green is involved: it's bad for the community.

The Hunt and Peck first linked is quite interesting. Nice one, mediareport.
posted by y2karl at 2:33 PM on August 19, 2002

If we're talking good famous black poets, my vote goes to Langston Hughes. Angelou is mostly sizzle, little steak.
posted by donkeyschlong at 2:47 PM on August 19, 2002

Is it really to much work to type out "African American"?
posted by delmoi at 3:55 PM on August 19, 2002

"Nigger" was replaced by "Negro", which was replaced by "Colored" which was replaced by "Black", which was replaced by "African American". What will be the shelf life for "African American"?

"Nigger" was never replaced by "negro" the two were in use at the same time.
posted by delmoi at 3:56 PM on August 19, 2002

"Nigger" was never replaced by "negro" the two were in use at the same time.

He may mean in terms of acceptibility.
posted by Hildago at 4:44 PM on August 19, 2002

Not every Toni Morrison work is worth holding seminars over, but some of her clunky metaphors can find worth as doorjambs. Nobody, but nobody in the US can stand a critical appraisal of their work. According to American critics literature is a fragile little beast that must be cooed gently to, for fear any harsh words will scare it away. Readers are treated like short bus riders who must be guided to the approved books coming from the literati nexus.

Toqueville said it best:

The ever increasing crowd of readers and their continual craving for something new ensure the sale of books that nobody much esteems.

Look at Dale Peck's 5600 word savaging of Rick Moody's entire oeuvre and his most recent piece of shit. Peck came out, said what I can only assume to be very honest things about Moody's stuff, and he started a firestorm of backlash. The backlash against Peck consisted almost entirely of lamentations about the reader becoming alientated from writers and literature by all the back-biting. The assumption here is that readers are too stupid to know the difference between good and bad art, between criticism and literature, between Dale Peck and Rick Moody.

The state of criticism is not bad because there are no good critics; Criticism is in the gutter because artists and publishers are scared of honesty cutting into sales and esteem. There are very specific reasons Tom Clancy is among the wealthiest of writers. Not the least of which is he writes dreck everyone knows is dreck and it is therefore not worth actually taking the time to point out it that his dreck is dreck.

That's another point Tocqueville made:

among democratic nations a writer may flatter himself that he will obtain at a cheap rate a moderate reputation and a large fortune. For this purpose he need not be admired; it is enough that he is liked.

That is the state of American letters -- ever has, ever will.
posted by raaka at 4:52 PM on August 19, 2002

Nigger" was replaced by "Negro", which was replaced by "Colored" which was replaced by "Black", which was replaced by "African American". What will be the shelf life for "African American"?
Well, nigger, negro, and (I think) colored were terms invented by white folks. Blacks went for black, then afro-american (more syllables), then african-american (even *more* syllables). "People of color" turned up somewhere along then line, not to be confused with "colored people." Oh, and white is not a color.

Anyway, Af-am won't last because it doesn't have enough syllables to sound important, nor the pretentiously convoluted syntax of "people of color." Plus, it sounds like something white people would invent.
posted by Ayn Marx at 5:10 PM on August 19, 2002

donkeyschlong, you might also like Henry Dumas. He wrote some interesting stuff heavy on mythology before he was "mistakenly" killed by an NYC transit cop in 1968. One of my faves:


The great god Shango in the African sea
reached down with palm oil and oozed out me.

posted by mediareport at 5:17 PM on August 19, 2002

Af-am won't last because it doesn't have enough syllables to sound important

One more time: I used "Af-Am" so my written post wouldn't take up as much room on the front page. I've never once heard a black person use it in speech, so don't worry; we haven't reached the next horrid stage in terminology you'll be forced to use. I use "black" in speech myself. Current AP style suggests "African-American," so I tend to use it when I write about black people.

So, does anyone here actually *like* Rick Moody? :)
posted by mediareport at 5:29 PM on August 19, 2002

Oh, and white is not a color.

Of course I've never seen a 'white' (as in the one not being a color) person. Even albinos are more of a pink. Then again I've never seen a 'black' person either (Well, except from a coal mine).
posted by HTuttle at 6:28 PM on August 19, 2002

'Negro' did not replace 'nigger'. 'Nigger' has been used for a long time as a casual, usually derogatory term. Before 1960 or so, 'colored' was used as the polite term for people of sub-Saharan African descent; for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or Zora Neale Hurston's 1928 essay, "How it Feels to be Colored Me." [read it if you haven't]. I think 'negro' was also used during this time, but was considered more technical or scientific, and less polite. 'Negro' became the preferred term around the time of the civil rights movement in the 1960's. 'Afro-American' was proposed in the late 60's, but never caught on. 'Black', which had had slightly derogatory overtones, became the preferred word around 1970. Who knows whether 'African-American' will catch on, although it has the virtue of being parallel with other hyphenated American ethnicities.

I do know that newspaper copyeditors (the guys who write headlines) will fight 'African-American' to the death.

Oh, yeah, and there's a book, which I have not read.

And finally, read this usage note, about a third of the way down the page. Doesn't mention 'colored', for some reason.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:42 PM on August 19, 2002

There was a semi-great parody of Maya Angelou on "The Simpsons" a while back.

I say Wanda Coleman rules.

Actually, Dale Peck is the worst writer of his generation, but I digress.
posted by blucevalo at 10:14 PM on August 19, 2002

When Maya Angelou starting hawking for Hallmark, I figured she smelled the end of her 15 minutes.

Which reminds me, I keep meaning to go in one of those stores and see how the Angelou-ian style translates into pet death sympathy cards:
Ear, fur, paw, and pining:
Let no more the soft push of pad on plush pile,
The savory oh so becoming fog of Alpo steam,
Issuing, issuing...all ablaze from from damp and twitching bifurcation,
The linoleum clicks mining the deep well of friendship's vestibule,
Resound in thoughtless breathlessness.
Bowl empty,
Glittering leash arust with damp tears,
Toilet unlapped...
Break this piece of my cloven engine,
Send it to abide, for I shall have none of it back.
We miss you, Rover.
posted by umberto at 12:59 AM on August 20, 2002

Nobody, but nobody in the US can stand a critical appraisal of their work.

As opposed to those European writers who relish criticism? raaka, do you really see this as a uniquely American trait?
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:14 AM on August 20, 2002


Great job, umberto!
posted by blucevalo at 9:05 AM on August 20, 2002

I know this thread's dead, but Coleman's not the only one having a problem with Aneglou's work.
posted by pardonyou? at 7:10 AM on August 22, 2002

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