This 1983 short story is, I believe, the first work of Angelou’s that I have read. Yes, please, rap a ruler across my knuckles. I deserve it. I guess I’ve always rationalized that I wouldn’t find much in her writing that would be relatable to me, a white male in America. While this may be true in some degree, it is a poor excuse for neglecting one of the most acclaimed and celebrated writers of our age.
This is the story of a chance meeting at a nightclub between two women (one black, one white) who “grew up together.” Told in the first person from the perspective of Philomena Jenkins, who is playing piano in “Cal Callen’s Band.” During a break in the band’s set, as Cal is introducing the members of the band to the audience, Philomena scans the crowd and sees Beth Ann Barker “sitting up with her blond self with a big black man … pretty black man.” Beth isn’t aware, until Cal gets around to introducing her, that the piano player is her childhood acquaintance. They share a glance of recognition “her blue (eyes) got as big as my black ones,” and Philomena lapses into memories of childhood, where her family worked as servants for Beth’s family.
Almost as though to escape the unpleasant memories, Philomena loses herself in the music. The band launches into another series of tunes and Angelou writes, as Philomena, a great passage describing her musical rapture, “My fingers found the places between the keys where the blues and truth lay hiding. I dug myself out the story of a woman without a man, and a man without hope. I tried to wedge myself in and lay down in the groove between B-flat and B-natural. I must of gotten close to it, because the audience brought me out with their clapping. Even Cal said, ’Yeah baby, that’s it.’ ” (below: the score to “‘Round Midnight” – the tune that sends Philomena into her rapture)
After the set is over, Philomena sees that Beth’s table is now empty so goes to the bar and orders a drink. Going over in her mind all the things she now won’t “have to” say to Beth, she is surprised when her childhood acquaintance reappears. (“I asked Willard to wait for me in the car. I wanted to talk to you.”) In a nutshell, Beth explains her situation to Philomena, and how the shoe is on the other foot for her now, as she, because of her relationship with Willard, is experiencing the discrimination that Philomena and millions of others face all their lives. Philomena remains patient while listening and realizing that Beth still just doesn’t get it. When Beth says she’s engaged to Willard and very happy, Philomena maintains her poker face, proud it didn’t “jump up and walk the bar.”
Finally, after listening to Beth’s monologue end with a plea to come to her wedding, Philomena says, “Good-bye Beth. Tell your parents I said go to hell and take you with them, just for company.”
I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed this story, although I did appreciate the beauty of the writing and the depth of the “message.” Some day I must read her novel, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” What about you? Have you read anything by Angelou? What would you recommend as a follow up?
(Below: Maya Angelou reading one of her poems at the 1993 Presidential Innauguartion – from Wikipedia)