Maya Angelou’s “Gather Together in My Name”

Near the end of the holidays, I started to read Maya Angelou’s Gather Together in My Name (I am still reading this book, slowly but surely). I am a fan of personal stories and I really wanted to read Dr. Angelou’s second volume of her “autobiographical series” (the first is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).

What prompted me to pick up this book was a post on Tits and Sass titled, “The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History.” This post followed Dr. Angelou’s death in 2014. The Tits and Sass post on Dr. Angelou’s sex work history prompted me to pick up this book because the post talks about how and why she wrote her personal story. I don’t want to erase Dr. Angelou’s Blackness by writing about her story here. So, please keep that in mind when reading this post but please go and read the post on Tits and Sass too.  I just want to share this book that I am reading and why I am reading it.

In the Tits and Sass post, the author, Peechington Marie, who is also a Black woman and a former sex worker, quotes Dr. Angelou from another interview. In that interview, Dr. Angelou states why she wrote Gather Together in My Name. The interviewer says to Dr. Angelous, “You’ve done a lot of things in your life that most people would judge as wrong. You’ve smoked pot, taken drugs, you were a madam for lesbian prostitutes, a teenage mom, a table dancer – you didn’t follow the straight and narrow. All these experiences gave you a rich life?” Dr. Angelou responds,

I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, “I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.” They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, “Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.” They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name [about her past as a sex worker]. [source]

At this point in law school, I sort-of feel lost. I am having trouble finding where I “fit” and how my own story fits into my law school experience or how my law school experience fits into my story. This story helps me to make sense of (some) of my experiences.

Dr. Angelou responds to the question about what “most people would judge as wrong” by talking about this idea of not being alone in those so-called wrongs. I relate because a lot of the times, before I started owning my sex work experiences, people would say what I was doing was “bad” or “wrong.” Still, some people would judge a woman who sells/trade sex as doing “wrong.” So, I struggle with this idea that even the law, today, judges selling/trading sex as wrong.

These ideas about selling/trading sex are evident in the transcripts from the parliamentary and senate committees during the legislative process for (what was known as) Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

During one of the senate committee meetings, Senator Plett tells Valerie Scott, “You have the right, ma’am, to have sex with whomever you wish. It’s the money that this bill deals with, not your right to have sex.” Valerie Scott replies, “As long as I do it for free.” And Senator Plett says, “Right.”

So, the only “right” kind of sex is “free” sex. Anything that exists outside of the “right” kind of sex is wrong. A lot of people believe this idea of right versus wrong sex. The current law also says that selling/trading sex  is inherently violent because of it is inherently exploitative but this is an effort to try to characterize a response to something that is viewed as “bad” in a “good” way. But what makes selling/trading sex inherently exploitative/violent? Is it the assumption that it is wrong? That the women who sell/trade sex are “bad”? That the women who sell/trade sex should not be protected because what they are doing is wrong/bad? I would say yes, it is the laws that make prostitution inherently violent/exploitative. The laws say that women who sell/trade sex are doing something wrong and that they should be punished. If this is the logic that follows, then the same predators who prey on women who sell/trade sex also assume that they are doing justice by given them what they “deserve”. As Senator Plett also said, “Of course, we don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes, we want to do away with prostitution. That is the intent of the bill.”

 

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