"The poetry you read has been written for you, each of you—black, white, Hispanic, man, woman, gay, straight."
"Shakespeare must be a black girl."
Theories about the true identity of the author known as Shakespeare abound. Among those said by skeptics who might actually be the bard are contemporary playwright Christopher Marlowe; Sir Francis Bacon; the Earl of Oxford; a gay man; or perhaps rather than a single author, a collective including actors and various writers. Dozens more alternative theories have been proffered as alternatives to the traditional attribution of a copious body of work that includes some of the best loved sonnets and dramas in the English language to the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. But a black girl?
That was exactly the suggestion Maya Angelou made during an electrifying lecture held this week at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Angelou, a great poet, novelist, and artist in her own right, was speaking metaphorically, of course.
Eighty-four years old and seated on the stage in a wheelchair for most of the address—looking more dignified than most able-bodied folks half her age--Angelou explained how as a young girl who once read (with no claim, necessarily, to understanding) every book in the tiny library in Stamps, Arkansas, she thought that the author of Sonnet 29 must have been a black girl because its solemn words expressed so fiercely what she—an outcast, the victim of racism, destitution, and childhood sexual abuse, crying out alone before a deaf heaven—felt inside:
When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
And when Angelou recited them to us, these words sounded indeed like they had sprung forth from her soul.