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  • Writer's pictureTrish Bentley

Maya Angelou

Extending The Boundaries

Terry’s Pub was my pub, and it was the place to be if you were black and hip and in New York City. The bartenders were paragons of urban elegance, mixing and serving drinks smoothly and participating in conversations which ranged in subject matter from whether China should be allowed in the UN to the proper length of a micromini skirt.

The regulars were writers, models, high school principals, actors, journalists, movie actors, musicians, and college professors.

One afternoon I entered Terry’s to find myself surrounded by well-wishers with wide smiles and loud congratulations.

The bartender showed me The New York Post and then presented me with a huge martini. I was featured as the newspaper’s “Person of the Week.” The regulars suspended their usual world-weary demeanor, giving hearty compliments, which I accepted heartily.

Eventually the toasters returned to their tables and I was left to grow gloomy in silence. Moodiness and a creeping drunkenness from too many martinis dimmed the room and my spirits.

Here, in my finest hour, I was alone. What had I done to any man to make him want to leave me and, even worse, not to win me to his side in the first place?

The questions came in the order of a military phalanx. Each marched into my consciousness, was recognized, and proceeded to make way for the next. I ordered another martini and resolved to soberly answer the inquiries. I was forty-one years old, slender, tall, and was often thought to be around thirty. No one had ever called me beautiful, save the odd Africanist who told me I looked like an African statue. Having seen many Yoruba and Fon wooden sculptures, I was not lured into believing myself anything but rather plain. I did dress strikingly and walked straight, my head evenly upon my shoulders, so kind people often said of me, “That’s a handsome woman.”

But here I was between affairs and alone. Like many women, I did regard the absence of a romantic liaison as a stigma which showed me unlovable.

I sat at the bar, mumbling over my inadequacies and drinking at least the fifth martini, when my roving eye fell on a table. Near the window sat five young, smart, black journalists enjoying each other’s company. They had been among the people who crowded around me earlier when the day had been bright, my present glorious, and my future assured. But they also had retreated, gone back to the comfort of their own table.

A tear slipped down my cheek. I called the bartender to settle my bill, but he informed me that all had been take care of , anonymously. With that pronouncement of kindness before me and the self-pitying thoughts behind me, I gathered my purse and, removing myself from the stool, gingerly pointed myself in the direction of the journalists’ table. The men looked up, saw my drunkenness, and became alarmed and guarded.

I pulled a chair from another table and asked, “Do you mind if I join you?”

I sat and looked at each man for a long time, and then I began a performance which now, more than twenty years later, can still cause me to seriously consider changing my name and my country of residence.

I asked of the table at large, “What is wrong with me? I know I’m not pretty, but I’m not the ugliest woman in the world. And if I was, I’d still deserve having a man of my own.”

I began to list my virtues.

“I keep a beautiful house, tables polished, fresh flowers, even if daises, at least once a week.

“I’m an excellent cook.

“I can manage my house and an outside job without keeling over in a dead faint.

“I enjoy sex and have what I hope is a normal appetite.

“I can speak French and Spanish, some Arabic and Fanti, and I read all the papers and journals and a book a week so that I can share an intelligent conversation with you.

“And none of all that appeals to you?”

I raised my voice. “Do you mean to tell me that that’s not enough for you?”

The men were embarrassed and angry with themselves at being embarrassed. Angry with me for having brought such unwieldy, drunken, awkward questions to their table.

In one second I realized that  I had done just what they feared of me. That I had overstepped the unwritten rules which I knew I should have respected. Instead, I had brazenly and boldly come to their table and spoken out on, of all things, loneliness.

When I realized my intoxication, I started to cry. An acquaintance at the bar walked over to our silent table. He greeted the men and asked, “Maya, sister, can I walk you home?” I looked up into his dark brown face and began to recover. His presence seemed to sober me a little. I found a handkerchief in my purse, and without rushing, I dabbed my face. I stood up and away from the table. I said, “Good-bye, gentlemen,” and took my rescuer’s hand. We walked out of the bar.

The long block home was made longer by my companion’s disapproving sounds. He clucked his tongue and muttered. “You shouldn’t be drinking martinis. Especially by yourself.” I didn’t have the will to remind him that I thought I had been with friends.

He continued….”You draw people to you; then you push them away.”

I sure didn’t have to push the journalists away.

“You give that big smile and act like you’re just waiting for a man to take you in his arms, but then you freeze up like an iceberg….People don’t know how to take you.” Well, they must not. I hadn’t been taken.

We arrived at my apartment, and I gave my attendant the sweetest, briefest smile I had in me and stepped inside and closed the door.

I entered into a long concentration which lasted until and even after I sobered myself.

At the end of my meditation I came to understand that I had been looking for love, but only under specific conditions. I was looking for a mate, but he had to a certain color, he had to have a certain intellect. I had standards. It was just likely that my standards eliminated a number of possibilities. 

I had married a Greek in my green youth, and the marriage had ended poorly, so I had not consciously thought of accepting any more advances from outside my own race. The real reason, or I think another reason, for not including non-African Americans in my target area was that I knew that if it was difficult to sustain a love affair between people who had grown up next door and who looked alike and whose parents had attended church together, how much more so between people from different races who had so few things in common.

However, during that afternoon and evening I arrived at the conclusion that if a man came along who seemed to me to be honest and sincere, who wanted to make me laugh and succeeded in doing so, a man who had a lilting spirit–if such a man came along who had a respect for other human beings, then if he was Swedish, African, or a Japanese sumo wrestler, I would certainly give him my attention, and I would not struggle too hard if he caught me in a web of charm.

-Maya Angelou


Is Anyone Ever Too Much?

There are a few misguided wits who think they are being complimentary when they declare a woman is “too much.” While it is admirable and desirable to be enough, only masochists want to be “too much.” Being, claiming, or accepting the status allows others to heap responsibilities upon the back of the “too much” woman, who naturally is also referred to as “super.” “Super Woman” and “Earth Mother.”

The flatterer, for that is what the speaker means to be, exposes himself as a manipulator who expects to ingratiate himself into “Earth Mother’s” good graces, so that she will then take his burdens upon her and make his crooked ways straight.

When the complimenter is confronted, he will quickly disavow any scurrilous intent and with hurt feelings will declare, “I meant ‘too much’ to be a sign of my appreciation. I don’t see how you could misread my meaning. You must be paranoid.”

Well, yes. A certain amount of paranoia is essential in the oppressed or in any likely targets of oppressors. We must stay vigilant and be very careful of how we allow ourselves to be addressed.

We can too easily become what we are called with all the unwelcome responsibilities the title makes us heir to.

-Maya Angelou

From Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now

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