When I met last week with literary biographer John Stubbs, he mentioned that his wife, Katja Šugman Stubbs, quoted Maya Angelou last week when accepting a position on Slovenia’s Constitutional Court. Her use of Angelou shows that she understands the responsibilities of judgeship at a deep level.
Here is the relevant excerpt from Šugman Stubbs’s remarks:
When approaching every milestone in life, a thoughtful person will always have doubts and questions. The milestone I have reached today is one that is much less about me than about the people whose lives will be affected by my judgments.
I am very aware of the responsibility which lies before me. I take on this new role with gratitude for my teachers, great respect for those who have acquitted it so well before me, and with an open mind prepared to learn and listen. My guide in this respect is a document, the Constitution, which is a starting point and a foundation for the values that should underlie all respectful co-existence that is fit for humanity. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves again that according to our Constitution the Slovenian state is not only ‘legal’ but also ‘social’; and that the Constitution upholds the dignity of every human being, regardless of their nationality, race, sex, language, religion, political or any other form of conviction, material status, birth, education, social position, disability or any other personal characteristic.
It falls to judges to give real substance to such words. Let me conclude with a remark by the American writer, Maya Angelou: ‘Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.’
Thank you for recognizing in me the professional and personal qualities that I hope will allow me to give the words of law a human voice.
In Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a caring neighbor says those words to an 8-year-old Maya, who has gone silent after her mother’s boyfriend assaults and rapes her. Mrs. Bertha Mason, “the aristocrat of Black Stamps” (Stamps, Missouri), wants to draw her out and talks to her over lemonade and vanilla cookies:
“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.”
I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed so valid and poetic.
As Šugman Stubbs indicates in her remarks, a constitutional judge must listen to everyone, including the voiceless. Mrs. Mason teaches Maya that such people deserve respect as much as anyone else:
As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.
To give Maya back her voice, Mrs. Mason has her read aloud. Just as a constitution must move beyond words on a page to become a living, pulsating reality in the lives of a people, so must a book:
She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible….
When I finished the cookies she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life.
“It was the best of time and the worst of times . . .” Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word.
“How do you like that?”
It occurred to me that she expected a response. The sweet vanilla flavor was still on my tongue and her reading was a wonder in my ears. I had to speak.
I said, “Yes, ma’am.” It was the least I could do, but it was the most also.
I am aware that, in her acceptance speech, Šugman Stubbs reads Angelou’s passage more metaphorically than literally, with the human voice standing in for three-dimensionality. A judge must see people as more than mere abstractions. When we have voice, we have personhood and we have community.
This is how voice works in Caged Bird. Because of the rape, Maya suffers from PTSD, with not only sound but color disappearing from her life. To cope, she has retreated into the solitary world of books. By showing her the power of reading aloud, Mrs. Mason returns three dimensionality and human interaction to her world. It’s worth noting that Dickens himself, later on in life, gave dramatic readings of his works, believing that reading silently didn’t do them justice.
I’ll add that the Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar emphasizes the importance of voice in his groundbreaking work A Voice and Nothing More. Pushing against what he sees as the deconstructionists’ overemphasis on writing and on text, Mladen restored the importance of voice to the conversation. The corporeality of voice links self to society in ways that philosophy has overlooked.
In Caged Bird, Mrs. Mason has one more challenge for the woman whose voice would one day be heard at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and whose dramatic readings of “Still I Rise” have inspired multitudes:
There’s one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit, I want you to recite.
Looking back at this episode in her life, Angelou talks about the importance of sharing books with another person—which is to say, moving from a profound private self to a public one:
I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…” tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.
Putting higher ideals above self is not a bad lesson for an in-coming constitutional judge. Katja Šugman Stubbs’s determination to honor every voice shows that Slovenia is in good hands.