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Maya Angelou the Philosopher

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

Recently, in the hallowed halls of intellectualism known as the internet, a question was posed to a forum I frequent: “Who is your favorite philosopher?” Responses of the usual suspects, mostly white men poured in.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, versed as so many of us are in the basics of Western Philosophy. But there are contemporary alternatives that are often overlooked. Perhaps because they lack a rigorous theory of reality or some other puffed up notion of knowledge, or perhaps because they don’t fit the physical mold of a philosopher, such authors are praised as poets but left off the table when folks discuss the love of knowledge.

eventhestarsThus, Maya Angelou wasn’t mentioned on that forum, but that day I realized there had been a major oversight in the musings of my fellows. If you are unaware of Ms. Angelou’s writing, stop doing what you’re doing (yes, even reading this post, it’ll be here when you get back, I promise), run to your nearest Library, and grab a copy — any copy — of her work.

My first exposure to Ms. Angelou came from books like Even the Stars Look Lonesome and Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. These books contain autobiographical meditations to inspire and teach.

Ms. Angelou doesn’t ask the question, “Do I exist?” but favors, “How do I live?” in its stead. Her soul is passionate, knowing the pains and joys of the complex connections we make and deal with while living on Earth.

momandmeandmom“How did I get to be Maya Angelou?” she asks in the preface of Mom & Me & Mom. This is a question everyone would do well to ask, but it is Ms. Angelou who delivers with resonance that reaches across racial barriers, class divides, gender roles and norms. I say this as a young white man whose soul has been pierced and enriched by her influence. Though my life and hers are undoubtedly different, she reaches across social barriers to touch and inform my ways of being and knowing.

I’m not sure an argument for “Maya Angelou the Philosopher” would hold weight in a scholarly forum. Indeed, disdain for poets reaches far back in Western Philosophy (Plato kicked them out of his city in The Republic). Reading Maya Angelou makes one wish those two could meet and discuss what it is about life that poets reveal, and how they know just the same, if not more, than those who profess love of knowledge.

I think Ms. Angelou would say she loves life, and therefore should not be considered a philosopher. Indeed, she is better than that. A reader need only look at her vast catalog of cookbooks, picture books, poetry, essays and biography to know that they are dealing with a truly wise woman.

Reserve a copy of one of Maya Angelou’s books in print or digital versions through our catalog.

-Carl

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Banned Books Week: Some Final Thoughts

Eleventh Stack brings Banned Books Week 2015 to a close with a guest post from Carl, who works at our West End location. We hope you enjoy his philosophical ruminations about censorship and intellectual freedom. Our regularly-scheduled monthly recap will return next week.

I’ve never been entirely clear as to why a book is banned. Particularly in this country, where the political culture is based on rebellion and allotments of freedom, it seems paradoxical. The champions of liberty gag an individual’s artistic expression while withholding that material from the community. The process is autocratic and reeks of distrust. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of life, banning a book assumes life to be a simple, black and white process. In other words, it is a denial of truth.

Literature and stories challenge readers to reexamine themselves while exploring and developing points of view previously unknown. Even the most nefarious text offers a glimpse into new ways of being and knowing for a reader. But exposure does not necessarily entail acceptance. A reader must question the work. The human intellect then serves as our bulwark against stupid. I’ve read plenty of text that I found banal and dry, oh such a bore! I’ve read text that is morally reprehensible, at least to my Catholic upbringing. Each time I’ve come away a better person. I’ve learned how to develop arguments against what I find disagreeable. Rather than throwing a tantrum and begging for salvation, I’ve developed my soul, or my intrinsic nature – those qualities that make me who I am, how I learn and choose to be.

Throughout history, publications challenging the status quo and/or “normal” ideas of propriety have been burned, desecrated or otherwise removed from view by figures of authority. Whether this is due to a ruler wanting a fresh intellectual start for the culture, as it happened in Qin China c. 200 B.C.; or because the publication was deemed a threat to society, much the way certain parents freaked out over imaginative representations of witchcraft in Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone like it was 1692; such reactions, when successful, do indelible harm to intellectual freedom, creativity and individuality.

See copyright notice in comic sidebar. Additional copyright © 2015, Debbie Ridpath Ohi. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted. Click through for artist's comic use policy.

See copyright notice in comic sidebar. Additional copyright © 2015, Debbie Ridpath Ohi. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted. Click through for artist’s comic use policy.

Not to mention the sad cases of books being lost in a major disaster or to the slow ravages of time. Though items like those were not banned in any official sense, their destruction bans enlightenment. Legends of rivers running black with ink dot history. Whether these stories report full on destruction of a library, or represent a general brain-drain, the moral stays the same – the removal and/or destruction of books (and art work generally) forces thinkers to reinvent the wheel and desolates the cultural landscape.

There is no such thing as a bad book. Certainly it could be written poorly, but in such a case there is something to be learned from the author – how not to write. But what of the ravings of a racist lunatic as seen in Mein Kampf? What can be gained from that exposure? I wouldn’t know. I haven’t read it. But I’m happy that I have the choice to do so. Literature is a window to historical truth. It allows us to climb into the minds of persons no longer alive, but who, for better or worse, impacted our world. As much as we may want to vaporize aspects or persons from the historic record, doing so obscures truth and hampers humanity’s ability to grapple with change in a knowledgeable, peaceful and complex way.

–Carl

 

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