On Wednesday, Maya Angelou, poet, author and presence, passed away at 86 after a long and extremely full life.
One of the odd consequences of spending much of our lives online is the proliferation of tributes. One or two obituaries are no longer the sum total. The big headline items are no longer the only ones you hear about. In public or in private life, from notes posted on Facebook at the loss of a family member, to myriads of online articles for a celebrity, you get a powerful sense of the infinite ways we tangle with each other’s lives.
It generally is a thing of beauty, even when it gets into, “No, I knew Christopher Hitchens More!” “No, I knew him more!” “OH YEAH? DID YOU EVER SUMMER WITH HITCH?!?” territory. The person you know as a major-league baseball player turns out to have been active in the cat fancier community; the fallen soldier was also that guy from Reddit. Everyone leads so many lives, and more than one life ends at a passing. Even when an incident seems trivial — “The deceased was ALWAYS in front of me in line to get coffee, and he sometimes answered the trivia questions on the chalkboard” — it can be incredibly moving to hear from this chorus of voices.
Yes, there can be something self-serving about the traffic grab involved in a tribute to someone whose death everyone is reading about. But there are right ways of doing this.
There are also wrong ways.
For instance, “R. I. P., Maya Angelou, Proud Gun Owner and User.”
Never mind that the rest of the article goes on to say that the author didn’t particularly care for Angelou’s writing, himself, but begrudgingly notes that she “dispensed sound if unspectacular wisdom of the type that is said to boost childrens’ self-esteem.” (I, for one, want that on my tombstone.) Let’s just focus on the headline. The headline hinges on one exchange in an interview with Time’s Belinda Luscombe, where Angelou admitted that she had guns around the house and had used one for self-defense.
I understand the impulse to frame the passing of a noteworthy figure in terms of what appeals to your niche audience. If I ever pass away after winning, say, a Nobel prize for Economics (hey, half of that sentence is guaranteed) the headline in “Knitter’s World” will be “Eminent Sweater-Wearer Shuffles Off Her Mortal Coil.”
This can be done in a way that is charming instead of crass.
But there is a limit. And you hit it when your headline can be summarized in the phrase: “RIP [Name], Who Shared My Opinion On This Controversial Issue (Hey, [Name], Feel Free To Speak Up If You Disagree.)” Headlines that would have been a touuuuuch iffy in the course of the person’s lifetime do not suddenly become fair game because the person is unable to object. Especially when, after the California shooting, the controversial issue in question is hovering very visibly in the public eye. I don’t know what Angelou would have said about the headline. Maybe she would have been on board. But it’s a little grotesque to claim her for your team like this, meanwhile decrying the thing that she’s actually famous for: her ability to speak for herself.
As is often the case, there’s a Angelou quote that speaks to this. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I guess “vigorously pro-gun” is how she made him feel. Then again, given his opinion of her work, I’m not sure how much she actually had to do with this at all.