Essay: Black Life Is, Ain't and Still Rises

Essay: Black Life Is, Ain't and Still Rises

The Black Life Is, Ain't and Still Rises program was curated by Rebecca Carroll. Read her essay below and learn more about the screenings and events here.


Black Life Is, Ain't and Still Rises

Early on in the documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, Angelou talks about the painful memory of when she and her brother Bailey were abandoned as children by their parents. Her mother and father were very much in love with each other and had “agreed to disagree,” and not to concern themselves with the responsibility that came with having two toddlers. Angelou recalls: “They put us on a train and sent us from Los Angeles to Arkansas with tags on our arms. “ No adult supervision.” While Angelou describes the experience as devastating — “I declared my mother dead so that I wouldn’t have to long for her” — of her brother, she says, “He never recovered.”

This is not the single most resonant passage from the film — indeed, there are many, and ones that are far more harrowing, but for me, none were so viscerally unnerving, poignant, and immediately identifiable. I was also abandoned by my birthmother, but I did not declare her dead. Worse than the rejection I felt from my birthmother, who is white, was the profound sense of cultural severance from blackness — from which, like Bailey, I have never truly recovered. Before I even understood what it meant to be black, I knew what it meant to miss black kindred — the way in which blackness will cradle you, and know you. In essence, for young Maya and her brother Bailey, this is what they also lost when their parents sent them to Stamps, Arkansas. And it informed Maya’s entire life.

In her own words: “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated... in fact it may be necessary to encounter defeat so we can know who the hell we are, what we can overcome, what makes us stumble and fall and somehow miraculously rise and go on. ” So begins the documentary, a foreshadowing of the life we are about to witness — the abandonment by her parents, the geographical upheaval, the rape by her mother’s boyfriend and subsequent five years of muteness, the poetry, Caged Bird, the fight, the struggle, the politics, falling in love, having a son, Malcolm and Martin and Patrice, Africa... and always, still, the extraordinary, resilient, magnificent levels of blackness . An almost vigilant repose, as Angelou later captures in her 1971 poem, “The Mothering Blackness” : “She came home running/back to the mothering blackness/deep in the smothering blackness” — a sinewy torso of testimony that white America can ultimately never contuse.

Maya Angelou was an enormously important and influential figure in my life. After her death in 2014, I wrote:

I had no idea how desperate I was for this figure until I st arted reading Maya Angelou. I absolutely devoured her books. I read Caged Bird, then Gather Together in My Name, and one of my all-time favorites, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. Yes, I loved her poetry: Still I Rise; Phenomenal Woman — how can you not? But what I loved more, and saw, felt and gained access to through her writing across genres was not merely a story of black girlhood, but a paradigm of emotional vigour, intellectual clarity and a full-on black woman-ness that I hungrily internalized and cherished throughout my childhood and into my adult years.

I imagined her young self alternately as my sister and myself; her young adult self as my mentor; her grown self as my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother — an ancestor supreme.

This documentary is an embodiment of all that I loved and love about Angelou, and serves as an emotional anatomy of a fearless and unapologetic black wo man whose radical accessibility, intellect, and self-awareness touched everyone from James Baldwin to Oprah Winfrey. My early admiration of her, though, came with significant challe nges. There was nothing and no one in my immediate environment to reflect my discovery and yearning fo r all of what she represented to me. Enter Marlon Riggs ’ stunningly declarative documentary, Black Is...Black Ain ’ t , which came out the same year I met my birthfather, who is black, for the first time.

What resonated with me from the film then is different from what resonates now. Then it was a beautiful, complicated refuge as I continued to grapple with my still evolving racial identity. In my birthfather I saw the defeat that Maya Angelou spoke of, but not the buoyancy. He had been homeless for most of his adult life after I was “taken away by white people, just like during slavery,” and although visibly, painstakingly grateful to lay claim to my existence, my successes, such as they were at the time, he was also clearly at the end of a life over which he had never fully been able to wrest power. He died some years later in his early 60s from general poor health, and as the black man America expected him to only be: disenfranchised, resentful, oversexualized, underpaid, and feared. I needed more ways to be black. I found them in Black Is...Black Ain’t .

Today, as our first black President comes to the end of his second term, and at a time when deconstructing the myth of a black monolith can be seen throughout popular culture, politics, education and media, it has been never more important to revisit Riggs’ message that we as black people are not all one thing. We don’t all dress the same, walk the same, think the same — we don’t all talk the same. As Angela Davis tells us in the film, regarding her sense of self: “I mean, I know the way I act and the way I talk and the way I think, reflects all the places that I've been and I've been a lot of places.” The simple yet authoritative power of this reasoning is essentially the equivalent of what the young folks today would call “getting your life.”

Arguably, there are few folks who get their lives with more c larity and vigour than “The Good Life” emcees featured in the 2008 documentary, This is The Life — and the black woman who made the film, Ava DuVernay. The film serves as an ensemble profile and presentation of the alternative Los Angeles-based music scene created during the early 90s that pushed boundaries, elevated young black and brown voices, and upcycled the very fabric of hip hop. It is both gritty and elegant, while also wholly expressive of Maya Angelou’s Rise Up and Marlon Riggs ’ paean to black individuality and variance.

At a health food store in South Central Los Angeles called The Good Life Cafe (which closed in 1995), DJs and rap artists and emcees, young and established, gathered weekly to cultivate strength and vernacular and joy. What started as a way to keep youth off the streets and in direct opposition to the pervasive and violent culture of gangsta rap, The Good Life transformed into both a cipher and a movement, of which DuVernay was an integral part. Then known as MC Eve of Figures of Speech, DuVernay, who would go on to direct the critically acclaimed and award-winning feature film Selma (2014), ostensibly made a documentary about counter-culture hip-hop artists, but actually delivered a blueprint for open-mic attitude and freestyle mastery.

Together, these three films create a lifeline, a narrative fluency that exists to rise and be and express — a black girl raised in the South morphs into a meditation on the many ways to be black, reimagined and spit into lyrical genius, captured by a wom an who would become known for reaching back into history to remind us of a man, who Maya Angelou later memorializes as “the great soul” — all for the love of blackness.


Rebecca Carroll is a producer of special projects focusing on race at WNYC/New York Public Radio. She is a regular Opinion Writer at The Guardian US and the author of five nonfiction books, including Sugar in the Raw and Saving the Race. Her columns, profiles, film and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, Ebony, and Gawker, among others.