Student Question

What impact did the events in "Salvation", "Mrs. Flowers", and "What Suffering Does" have on the authors' lives?

Quick answer:

Maya Angelou: The rape and the court case that followed her testimony against her mother's boyfriend had a devastating impact on Maya Angelou as a young girl. She was unable to speak for five years. When she regained her voice, it was in the form of poetry. Young Maya believed that she killed the man by speaking about what happened to her in court, so she could not speak again until Mrs. Flowers told her that it was not the speaking but what happened to her before and after that caused him to die. David Brooks: David Brooks writes in his book "The Road to Character" about how he lost his moral compass when he found success as a writer and columnist for The New York Times.

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These are three very different writings, and it is interesting to compare them. Each writer discloses details about events of human suffering, either personal or observed. Langston Hughes writes about the loss of innocence in his essay entitled "Salvation." Maya Angelou writes about the impact of a respected mentor in getting back her voice after a childhood trauma in her autobiography entitled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. David Brooks writes about the impact that suffering can have on a person and argues it is often an ennobling experience. 

Maya Angelou was a highly acclaimed author and poet. In her childhood, when she was eight years old, she became mute for five years. This was selective mutism and was based on a childhood trauma. She was raped by her mother's boyfriend and then had to testify against him in court. He was convicted but released from jail, and he was dead four days later. Young Maya believed her voice had killed him. In the excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings entitled "Mrs. Flowers," Maya writes about a woman from her hometown of Stamps whom she greatly respected and admired. Mrs. Flowers, called Sister Flowers by Maya's mother, serves as a mentor and role model to young Maya and helps her find her voice again. A quote from Mrs. Flowers that resonated with Maya Angelou is contained below: 

“Now no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.” That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it. “Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” 

Langston Hughes was an American poet, playwright, author, and a prominent voice of the Harlem Renaissance. In his essay entitled "Salvation," he writes about his experience attending his Aunt Reed's church and finding salvation. He was thirteen when he had the experience of attending the church, which sought to convert him to Christianity by the experience of being born again. He was told that there would be a light and that Jesus would come into his life. He was told that he would see and feel things to prove he'd been saved. He was placed on the mourner's bench along with other children while the church members prayed and cried over them. He sat for a long time because he didn't feel anything. When he was the last on the bench and felt the pressure of holding everyone back from going home, he claimed to have an experience he didn't actually have. 

"Then I was left all alone on the mourners' bench. My aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and song swirled all around me in the little church. The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices. And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting--but he didn't come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened.

I heard the songs and the minister saying: 'Why don't you come? My dear child, why don't you come to Jesus? Jesus is waiting for you. He wants you. Why don't you come? Sister Reed, what is this child's name?'

'Langston,' my aunt sobbed.

'Langston, why don't you come? Why don't you come and be saved? Oh, Lamb of God! Why don't you come?'

Now it was really getting late. I began to be ashamed of myself, holding everything up so long. I began to wonder what God thought about Westley, who certainly hadn't seen Jesus either, but who was now sitting proudly on the platform, swinging his knickerbockered legs and grinning down at me, surrounded by deacons and old women on their knees praying. God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I'd better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved."

After this, he cries at home because he lied and deceived the church members, and because Jesus didn't come to him, so he no longer believed in him. It is a loss of childhood innocence and faith for him. 

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of a book entitled The Road to Character. He has become something of an expert on morality and religion. He says:

“I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.” 

In his op-ed piece entitled "What Suffering Does," he explores the depth of character that often follows a tragedy. He notes the self-sacrifice that some people express following deep suffering. He cites, as an example, parents who have experienced the loss of a child, and then go on to create foundations in order to selflessly help others in need. On suffering, David Brooks writes as an observer of human nature and shows that in a culture that promotes happiness as its highest value, it is often suffering that brings out the best in human nature. Other than a divorce, I was unable to find any personal tragedy connected to David Brooks. 

All three authors write about personal experience with significant events that change a person's character, some for the good, others for the worse.  

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