I came across this video of Maya Angelou on facebook today via my friend Kate Forsyth (whose own discussions about what reading/writing have meant for her and her childhood are equally moving). This is profound in so many ways, so I decided to transcribe what she says in this video below.
Angelou is basically speaking my personal ethics here. I won’t deny that like many academics, I’ve been questioning what higher education has become and worried about the directions knowledge has been fed into. It feels like the entire world is being streamlined into some soulless dystopian vision of capitalist utilitarianism sometimes, and I wonder what it is we leave behind in this pursuit. I wonder if it’s our essential humanity. So this video is an important reminder to me.
It reminds me of things I often discuss with my students: one is that cynicism is the easy way out, even if life is hard and you feel like the system is against you. It’s still the easy way out. Cynicism requires nothing out of you. Idealism and believing in something is hard and painful – it can tear you apart and make you feel things you don’t want to. But it’s like love – living without it seems a soulless existence.
Secondly, it reminds me that literature, and art, and reading, and writing, yes – they do save lives. No, this is not an indulgence. As a teacher, I’m not in the business of creating productive little units for the workplace alone. My job’s greater aim is to help human beings remain human beings – to remind them that this world of literature opens up a world of knowledge and human fallibility, joy, pain. And armed with this world, you move within the ‘real’ one a richer person, more equipped to deal with the difficulty of life. I truly believe in this, because I can point to specific texts I’ve read that have electrified me, that have saved me, that have helped shape who I am. I can’t imagine my life without this element – and I can’t imagine it without having gone to university to be introduced to these texts.
I know the education I had was a privilege. I remind my students that their own education is one too. Often, when you are really young, going to university feels like a burden or a necessary step required by society. It’s easy to forget what a true privilege it is – it’s easy to forget how many people around the world simply don’t have this privilege, some of whom are literally dying and fighting for it. There is so much that is wrong with the world, and education shows you how to battle this – it is not simply a piece of paper for your CV. Jobs are fleeting things in the end, the core of your humanity is not.
Here’s the transcription (but I suggest listening to Angelou say these words herself here):
“When I was seven and a half, I was raped. I won’t say severely raped, all rape is severe. The rapist was a person very well known to my family. I was hospitalised. The rapist was let out of jail and was found dead that night. And the police suggested that the rapist had been kicked to death. I was seven and a half. I thought that I had caused the man’s death because I had spoken his name. That was my seven and a half year old logic. So I stopped talking for five years.
Now, to show you again how out of evil there can come good, in those 5 years I read every book in the black school library, I read all the books I could get from the white school library, I memorised Shakespeare, whole plays, 50 sonnets. I memorised Edgar Allan Poe, all the poetry. Never having heard it, I memorised it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy De Maupassant, I had Balzac, I had Rudyard Kipling. When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say, and many ways in which to say what I had to say.
So out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person, more often than not introduces cynicism. And there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic. Because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness. And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.”