When I found out from Corinne of PaperTigers that February is Black History Month through her comprehensive post here, I knew we had to devote a specific period during the month to celebrate our diversity through African American literature, art, and music and be in solidarity with other book bloggers who share the same sentiment. Corinne’s post also includes quite a number of websites and bookblogs that supposedly highlight “the richness of children’s literature that focuses on Africa, African Americans, African Canadians and the African diaspora.” GatheringBooks would then be devoting the period of February 18-25 to Black History Month. We have so many books lined up – the challenge is how to fit everything within this period. We shall try though.
When my mentor discovered that we are celebrating Black History Month, she rummaged through her bookcase to share with me this book by Maya Angelou and Jean-Michel Basquiat “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” She noted that she often uses it in counseling and that kids enjoy the illustrations and connect to it beautifully – and after reading and re-reading it (and yet again – I must have read it four times), I could understand why. I also knew at that moment that I have found the perfect book to open our Black History Month Special for the next eight days.
On Things that Go Bump and Creep in Thine Soul. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed most of Maya Angelou’s poems, most of which are designed for adults such as “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” – this one, though has that distinct childlike quality with the whimsical, graffiti-themed illustrations that celebrate the challenge and surreal artistry of coloring beyond the lines – and the almost-singsong like component of the entire poem.
Shadows on the wall Noises down the hall Life doesn’t frighten me at all.
Ghostly Clouds and Barking Canines. What ARE the things that frighten us? They may be shadows of our own making, clouds in our past, or dogs foaming at the mouth. Can we staunchly declare the following lines:
Bad dogs barking loud Big ghosts in a cloud Life doesn’t frighten me at all.
Big Old Meanies and Fire-Breathing Dragons. There are bullies everywhere – in email correspondences, in office cubicles, deserted corridors in your schools, even in your own homes. Then again, we say these lines of Maya Angelou like a prayer:
Mean old Mother Goose Lions on the loose They don’t frighten me at all. Dragons breathing flame On my counterpane That doesn’t frighten me at all.
Say Boo. Go Shoo. Skedaddle Scoot. Yes. We are bigger than our fears. For some reason I am reminded of Sho and the Demons of the Deep written and painted by Annouchka Gravel Galouchko (review can be found here) which I also found to be exceedingly moving. The picture book talked about how we can either cast our nightmares out into the sea or toss them into the air. Maya Angelou though spoke through a child’s voice in this verse, giving the young one (or even older ones such as ourselves) a Magical Chant that would make the shadows go crawling back where they come from:
I go boo Make them shoo I make fun Way they run I won’t cry So they fly I just smile They go wild Life doesn’t frighten me at all.
Screams, Panthers, and Strangers. When grown-ups fight for the weirdest (and even sanest) of reasons, oftentimes, children blame themselves. Recall that if we ascribe to Piaget’s developmental stages, those who are below nine would still be quite egocentric (not in the bad way that people are described once they hit puberty), thus the belief that the world revolves around them. And so while things may not make sense and we see strange creatures emerge from out of familiar faces, we remember these verses:
Tough guys fight All alone at night Life doesn’t frighten me at all. Panthers in the park Strangers in the dark No, they don’t frighten me at all.
School Blues and Mustering One’s Courage. A large part of the day is devoted to children’s attendance in school. And while these institutions should be considered second homes of the young ones, it could likewise be a place of torture for most of them, a place they dread rather than somewhere they would dare to imagine things that go beyond themselves. So if you feel alone, misunderstood, unappreciated, say these lines from Maya Angelou:
That new classroom where Boys all pull my hair (kissy little girls with their hair in curls) They don’t frighten me at all.
Amulets, Dream Catchers, and Magic Spells. Clinicians call it therapy, psychiatrists call ’em Prozac, academics lecture about “coping mechanisms,” “resiliency,” and “protective factors” among at-risk children. My childlike soul however, call these divining forces amulets, dream catchers, and magic spells. We take what we can to keep whole. We hold on to that which keeps us sane.
Don’t show me frogs and snakes And listen for my scream, If I’m afraid at all It’s only in my dreams. I’ve got a magic charm That I keep up my sleeve, I can walk the ocean floor And never have to breathe.
Life doesn’t frighten me at all Not at all. Not at all. Life doesn’t frighten me at all.
Sketches of Maya Angelou and Jean-Michel Basquiat. What makes this picture book even more compelling is the biographical notes found in the end.
The poet Maya Angelou and the Artist Basquiat have been intimate with demons, evil intentions, and being adrift in grief. One managed to rise and thrive from the despairing and clamoring shadows from her past and shared beauty and being; while the other one was consumed by shadows – literally and figuratively. I would not even deign to share their stories here because this space would not be enough. I have read Maya Angelou’s I know Why the Caged Bird Sings and I invite you to read it if you wish to know more about what makes her rise (“Still I Rise”), why she will not be moved (“I Shall Not be Moved”) and how phenomenal a woman she is (“Phenomenal Woman”).
I was not able to find a video clip of Maya Angelou reading this particular poem, but I did find one of her reading “Still I Rise” which I believe to be the adult version of “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” and equally celebrates our superhuman invulnerability, the audacity of fearlessness in the midst of pain, and blinding beauty everywhere.
The following clips on the other hand show the short-lived existence of our graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat who died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-seven in year 1988. The first video clip is the documentary on him entitled Radiant Child directed by Tamra Davis (I was particularly struck by Langston Hughes’ poem at the beginning – makes me understand even more why I am in the field that I am in):
This video clip shows a short interview with Jean-Michel and how his peers valued and viewed him. May we find in each of us the shades, hues and verses that would warm our hearts and silence the fears struggling within.
Read the World Update: 1 of 6, Poetry, North America