St. Louisans may have felt some civic pride this week in noting that Maya Angelou was born here. But you have to wonder whether her brilliance and strength developed because of her St. Louis experiences or in spite of them. Perhaps both.
Obituaries recounted that the renowned author split her childhood between St. Louis and Arkansas after age 3, when her parents divorced. The rape she wrote about in "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" happened here. Segregation was an ugly fact of life in both places. Yet so were family resilience and ambition.
Angelou's life as it turned out would have been unimaginable when she was born in 1928. Yet she created it — from teen mother to national sage with turns as a prostitute and madame, singer and actress, civil rights leader and barrier breaker. She inspired and mentored more than one generation to embrace possibilities she helped to unlock, as East St. Louis poet Eugene Redmond discussed in an interview with reporter Terry Perkins.
Angelou's life is a reminder that a community is at the same time one place and many experiences. At the macro level, the region's prospects shape our own like currents in a river. If the economy is booming here, for example, that changes the flow of possibilities. Likewise, discrimination and disparities in opportunity dim our collective prospects.
At the micro level, families and teachers create their own small worlds — exerting forces, like eddies, that may run counter to dominant trends. From these eddies spring twists and turns of history that could not be predicted, such as Angelou's success.
This year, Missouri has been debating how to improve schools. At its heart, that's a discussion about how to marshal macro and micro influences to best effect for all students. No challenge is more important.
Of course, artistic genius cannot be mass produced. By some alchemy of the spirit, it transforms struggle into art. Yet surely even great artists need nurturing to thrive.
Angelou was not the only artist to have struggles with St. Louis. The St. Louis Walk of Fame also includes author T.S. Eliot and playwright Tennessee Williams, who were happy to get out of town. But other stars on the walk — from poet Howard Nemerov to rock and roll legend Chuck Berry — made their homes and found their voices here.
In his reflection on "The Magic Flute" at Opera Theatre, St. Louis Public Radio's Robert W. Duffy wrote of the demands of great art — “'Flute,' like all truly great art, is serious ... and intellectually sacrosanct, not glittery or campy or gauche, and when you think about it, hard work, and not much fun," he said. But great art holds the power to bring joy and redemption, he wrote.
Metropolitan regions typically measure themselves by the numbers: jobs, business starts, housing values, graduation rates and so on. All are important. But the character and quality of life in St. Louis are shaped as well by its artists and by the organizations that bring great art to us. By that measure, as Maya Angelou's passing reminded us this week, St. Louis is extraordinarily rich.