In the women’s literature class I’m teaching this semester—in which we are reading Angelou, along with Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Anne Bradstreet, Phyllis Wheatley, Charlotte Bronte, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and many more female authors—we are emphasizing the distinctive qualities of women’s literature. We are marking what these authors bring to bear on the human condition, the tensions their writing reveals between public and private, personal and political, and the ways in which women’s writing speaks to experiences at variance with those of the male writers in the traditional canon.
But Angelou’s message was that there is more in poetry—and, by extension, all art—that unites than divides us. Not only can a long-dead, uber-white male writer like Shakespeare voice an experience so universal that it speaks truth to power for a poor black girl living in the Jim Crow American South, but that same girl can reflect years later on how the poetry of her beloved Edgar Allen Poe reads “like it was written by LL Cool J.”
Karen Swallow Prior at The Atlantic makes a compelling case that great literature can deal well with both what is unique and universal about the lives of us all as individuals – when it comes to art, we don’t need to ‘stay in our lanes’: