A Response to Angelou on Burns


Jess Brough is a writer, producer and psycholinguistics PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Their work has appeared in queer anthology The Bi-Bible: New Testimonials, Scottish literary magazine Extra Teeth, and The Best of British Fantasy 2019 anthology.

For Glasgow Film Festival 2021, Jess was commissioned to write a response, below, to one of the festival films, Angelou on Burns


The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still

 'Caged Bird' by Maya Angelou

Where are we best placed to find our heroes, the ones who teach us about freedom? Perhaps it is in the longing of a voice to guide your moral compass, or in accidentally stumbling upon a life whose experiences, though they may not necessarily mirror your own, reveal to you what it means to be human. I remember finding a guiding voice in Maya Angelou when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was doing so on holiday, looking for the sunshine Scotland is always too Scottish to give.

I left Scotland and found Angelou – I was not expecting to discover that Angelou had, at one point, found herself in Scotland. 200 years after the death of Scottish poet Robert Burns, Angelou was stepping off a plane at Glasgow Airport and preparing to travel to Ayrshire. The film Angelou on Burns, directed by Elly M Taylor in 1996, takes us on Angelou’s journey from the United States to Burns’ birthplace, and into conversations of his poetic legacy and of solidarity, independence and freedom. That such a film exists already went beyond my wildest imagination, and in watching it I felt myself falling in love with Angelou all over again.

Many of us have heard the story – when Angelou was seven-and-a-half she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After telling her brother about what had happened, the man was arrested and then, upon a quick release, killed by angry members of their shared community. On believing that her words could kill, that by saying the man’s name she had caused his death, Angelou did not speak again for five years.

It was a Black woman in Angelou’s village, Mrs Flowers, who helped break the spell of her silence, by first introducing the young girl to poetry. With this, Angelou began to build an arsenal of language from numerous writers, combined with an understanding of human behaviour. Within that gift was Burns – this man from a faraway land and time, speaking in Scots – a tongue dissimilar to her own but at once connectable in its lyricism and emotion. In the documentary, Angelou credits Burns, and Mrs Flowers, with helping her to use her voice again.

So, I think Angelou on Burns is a love story. The camera captures how her eyes glisten as she speaks about Burns, it follows her mouth as she whispers quietly along with recitals (because, as it turns out, Angelou knew so many of Burns’ poems and songs by heart). She is as much the subject and star of the film as her beloved poet – we see her entering a grand hall draped in an elegant black fur coat and long pearls to a crowd full of applauding fans. Her face when a young girl starts to sing 'The Banks O’ Doon' is one of adoration, warmth and loving recognition, and vicarious joy washed over me as I witnessed such a wholesome experience.

I did, however, also have to reflect on the feeling of discomfort I have felt since moving to Scotland and finding myself in similar spaces – culturally marvellous but threatening a distance between myself and safety. I knew when I arrived that Scotland was not a haven for everyone who found themselves there and I learned quickly about the anti-Black legacies of the Enlightenment and the men who are still celebrated uncritically in the stone of the buildings and monuments they haunt.

I found Jackie Kay and discovered similarities in myself with her through Red Dust Road – it was a beautiful meeting. However, I also saw similarities between her difficult experiences of being a young Black lesbian in Scotland in the 1980s and of the issues those from the Black queer and trans community are navigating in Scotland today. I noticed gaps in the creative sectors of Scotland – a country so proud of its history of words and of music, but who had not been able to embrace many of its Black artists tightly enough to hold onto them. Instead, I learned that Scotland is a country that often chooses to grasp onto a version of its history that favours exceptionalism.

I was unaware that a third of plantation owners in Jamaica – the country that gave me my mother – were Scottish. And soon enough, I also discovered that there was a moment in time where Scotland’s beloved poet Burns was preparing to leave the bonnie shores to work on those same plantations as a bookkeeper (a role which may have had just as much to do with making sure enslaved people worked themselves to death as it did with keeping records). Just a single moment in time. But a critical enough one to show how easily we choose to remember the good parts about a hero while leaving indispensable truths about who they were as a person behind. How far back does a person have to have been born and died for us to readily bleach their sins?

Something I truly love about Angelou’s writing and the writing of people like Toni Morrison, Jackie Kay and Ali Smith is their ability to implicate themselves in the human condition. They may write about oppression and cruelty subjected onto them, but they are also there, among the words that spell out what it means to do harm. Show me a poem by Burns that suggests he interrogated his own white supremacy. Instead, we are often pointed towards 'The Slave’s Lament', a song Burns is said to have written a few years after his abandoned emigration to Jamaica, when he had supposedly begun to truly understand the plight of enslaved people.

 

Torn from that lovely shore, and
Must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

 

Burns had been pointing the finger towards the bourgeoisie for a long time before that, but never appeared to put his own complicity in oppression on trial. It does not take much to consider an enslaved person might be weary, nor is it exceptional to reimagine the plight of someone oppressed, from your own understandings of suffering. Instead of writing a poem about his own collusion in Black suffering, Burns gave us a sort of remix – it is also said that this song was a version of an existing broadside ballad called 'The Trappan'd Maiden'. It is understood that 'The Slave’s Lament' is the only poem Burns wrote about slavery.

In Angelou on Burns, Angelou considers the song instead as an example of how a poet 'transcends race, time and space' – I feel okay with diverging from her on this. While reflecting on this film, I have grappled with the same question over and over. Why, in knowing what we know about Burns (because on top of all this, there have also been numerous discussions about his treatment of women), do people in Scotland still look to Burns’ interpretation of egalitarianism to guide Scotland’s understanding of Black suffering? I think one potential answer is that people are enamoured by equivalences. A Man’s a Man for a’ That – but what good is a’ that when the category of man is dependent on the colour of your skin, your gender and the location of your origins?

This surprised me about Angelou on Burns. As she speaks with Burns enthusiasts in Ayrshire, Angelou talks of feeling a kinship between those who are part of the Scottish Independence movement and the Black Americans who fought for Civil Rights. It troubled me to hear that Angelou would even go there – I have lost count of the many times I have heard white Scots claiming to understand racial oppression, because of England’s long cold grip on their country.

I had to ask myself if there is value in looking for such an alignment. I did so because I trust Maya Angelou, and although I reached one answer each time – it is not the same – I wondered if it is not an attempted mirroring of politics that is useful, but how language is used to appeal to the heart of humanity. Frederick Douglass is said to have been a supporter of Burns’ work. Douglass may very well have not known about Burns’ book-keeper plans; I wonder if that would have changed things. As a writer himself, we can appreciate how he may have become inspired by Burns’ poetics for the labouring classes, while considering how he might be able to use his own words to help eradicate slavery from America through emancipation.

Perhaps the value is in the feeling a person first has when they engage with a discovered art, one that opens their eyes to something. Irrespective of what I think or what we know about his past, Robert Burns and his poetry changed Maya Angelou’s life. Regardless, I do think there is power in understanding who our celebrated figures were at their core, even if it is ugly – to humanise them and reject infallibility. It is important for the expectations we place on ourselves but also for history. Burns’ actions tell us much about the distinction white Scots made between being anti-aristocracy but pro-slavery, because they show us how the pecking order ran in the 19th century and how it runs now.

We know about the legacy the Enlightenment and the transatlantic slave trade has had on Black life in Scotland today. We see it in the ever-present Scottish Defence League, in the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody and in the population contained within detention centres across the country. We hear it in the testimonies of young Black school children who have experienced racial abuse and we do not see it in the popular history of Scotland because there has been a well-organised campaign for forgetfulness across the nation.

When Angelou speaks of caged birds, we know she is imagining freedom. As so many Black women do, she considered the whole world when she wrote about oppression, and she was able to recognise Scotland’s hunger for independence. We have to believe in the possibility of solidarity and in common ground across all people, because what other choice is there. That being said, a nation like Scotland will not get there by considering only the freedom of its own, or by continuing to view Burns as an abolitionist poet.

We will not get to freedom by scrubbing clean the evidence to the contrary. Instead, we must look for hope in Maya Angelou’s eyes as she asks a hall full of Scots:

'Will there be dancing?'


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