Could Maya Angelou survive in the age of the trigger warning?


Could Maya Angelou survive in the age of the trigger warning?

There was a lot of engagement on a recent post about Maya Angelou. Many people took offense and misunderstood the intent…which was to honor the woman we all loved.

Maybe it would have went over better if I would have followed, Chicago Tribune Columnist’s Clarence Page’s advice and issued a trigger warning like he did in a recent column:

“Caution: The following tribute to the late great author-poet Maya Angelou may be hazardous to some of my touchier readers.” 

He writes, “The previous paragraph is called a “trigger warning,” a disclaimer of the sort that often has been applied to online discussions about rape, sexual abuse and mental illness. In recent months they have spread to a place where power struggles can be most intense: college campuses”.

Currently in colleges across the country, professors are being asked to issue trigger warnings and allow students to skip class when course materials are assigned that potentially could shock or alarm some students.

To which, Clarence Page responds, “What is the purpose of literature and other arts if not to occasionally shock or alarm students, among other people?”

Maya-Angelou_Boston-CollegeTrigger warnings are presented as a civilized way to alert students that some particularly challenging material is coming up. Fine. But that decision is better left to the classroom instructor than to an outside body of students or administrators. In the world of social media, it’s a new frontier that is being self-policed by the vocal majority who often post more comments of condemnation then compassion.

Clarence Page put it like this: It is important to think about people’s feelings and avoid unnecessary distractions. But that also leads to a hypersensitivity about how we think other people might feel when we should be offering more challenges to help others open their minds to other points of view which could help to improve how they think.

Maya Angelou understood this. Her groundbreaking 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” despite its many honors, has often appeared on the American Library Association’s annual survey of books most often banned by local schools and libraries. Would her work be taught in schools if teachers were required to issue trigger warnings that her work contained topics of rape, abuse, sexuality, woman’s rights and gender bias?

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.

In order to truly love a person you must fully know a person. That was the intent of that earlier post…to inspire and not to incite. 

Screen-Shot-2014-05-28-at-1.44.03-PMIn “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou spoke so courageously and so forthrightly about all the 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. She spoke back then about how we’ve been taught to be ashamed of, to be quiet and not speak our truth, especially about one’s own sexuality, especially at the time when rape and abuse were not even spoken aloud.

Despite all the negative comments to that post, there were many others who “got it.”

Madison Page from the DMV wrote, “We seem to have a strong need to make people into saints and icons. Remember the screeching when MLK’s womanizing was revealed? OMG you would think the world was coming to an end. We want to elevate our heroes to god-like status and don’t want to admit anything about them that WE deem less-than-savory. (And that’s *without* the argument that there’s anything unsavory about sexuality….we can’t even get to that part.)

Madison Page brings up a great point.  It’s because of how many of our black heros and sheros have transcended their past is what makes them iconic.

(Click on page 2 below to continue reading)


The views expressed are that solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect WHUR or Howard University.

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