Dr. Maya Angelou is a respected and revered icon in the Black community. She was a singer, dancer, a poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. Angelou was also an esteemed elder to many. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 86. A tweet that was meant to be a joke sparked a viral debate among Black folks with reference to what respect means to the community.
A Twitter account, which belonged to Pierre Phipps a.k.a @PrinceCharmingP, used a vintage clip of Maya Angelou appearing to verbally chastise a young Black woman who called her by her first name instead of “Miss Angelou” before asking the legend about her views on interracial marriage.
I can’t wait to turn 30 so I can read one of yall for calling me by my first name like this: pic.twitter.com/ym71DkWCNn
— The Prince (@PrinceCharmingP) March 14, 2019
Mother Angelou quickly responded: “I’m not ‘Maya.’ I’m 62 years old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, you have no license to come up to me and call me by my first name. That’s first. Also, because at the same time, I am your mother, I am your auntie, I’m your teacher, I’m your professor. You see?”
It was that response that drew criticism and praise. Some people saw no issue in the way Dr. Angelou chided the young lady because it is often taught in the Black community to not address elders/ adults by their names. Others believed Angelou was rude and shouldn’t have talked to the woman in that manner, specifically in front of white folks on national television.
“They think Miss Angelou’s response was very elitist. They were really, really pissed about it,” said Phipps, who lives in Los Angeles and writes for television. “We’re living in progressive times and a lot of people said once they turn 18, they feel like they have an even platform no matter how old you are. History is no longer playing a part in how we go about our everyday lives. History is becoming history.”
And herein lies the issue. Angelou’s response to the young woman albeit direct was appropriate. Not only is the tradition of Black children and young adults calling their elders something other than their first names rooted in respect. But it is also rooted in the trauma of having lived through Jim Crow, slavery, Reconstruction and other periods of history where Black men and women weren’t given respect.
White people, especially in positions of authority, refused to use honorifics when addressing Black people. Those black men and women were typically referred to as “boy” or “girl.” And even if they did use a name, Blacks would never be addressed by last name. For example, if a Black woman was named Lisa Washington. Whites would call her Lisa with no regard for age or stature.
The idea was to remind Blacks that they were inferior and not deserving of a title of respect. In fact, there was even a case (Hamilton vs. Alabama) which went to the U.S. Supreme Court and served as a precedent for Blacks to be addressed in the same manner as whites.
In essence, Dr. Angelou’s response was not just about etiquette. It was about being demanding the respect and esteem that her age and accomplishments merited.
And for the record, Dr. Angelou did apologize for being so stern to the young woman later in the show.