Naming post office buildings is a job that sometimes falls to the US Congress, and the often stalled body is surprisingly efficient at doing so. But yesterday (Mar. 1) was a surprising exception to their frequently unanimous vote: Nine congressmen, all Republican, voted against naming a new post office building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina after poet Maya Angelou.
Facilities are often named after local heroes and soldiers lost in war. Angelou, who received the highest US civilian honor, a Medal of Freedom, from president Barack Obama in 2010, would seem a natural choice for her home of Winston-Salem, where she died in 2014.
The poet was revered both for her literary achievements and her leadership in the African-American community, and read a poem at former US president Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993.
Yet for some representatives, it seems Angelou’s track record with communism outweighed her accolades.
A representative from the office of Republican representative Mo Brooks, from Alabama, tells Quartz:
“While Maya Angelou did many good things in her life, Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-5) did not believe it appropriate to name an American Post Office after a communist sympathizer and thereby honor a person who openly opposed America’s interest by supporting Fidel Castro and his regime of civil rights suppression, torture and murder of freedom-loving Cubans.”
Michael Burgess, a Republican representative from Texas, said in a statement to Quartz:
“Congress has more important things to be doing rather than spending time naming post offices. It has been my experience in the past that these post office namings have been used to honor and remember young men and women who have lost their lives fighting for our country. Yesterday, I was asked to vote to name a post office for a pro-Castro and pro-communist individual and I could not support that.”
Congressman Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement that he was “shocked” at the response to such a benign piece of legislation. He added: “The fact that these nine Members would cast a no vote shows a blatant disrespect and only adds to the damaging actions they’ve taken this year to reverse progress from long and hard fought civil rights battles.”
In her autobiography The Heart of a Woman, Angelou does talk about going to see the 1960 meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro in Harlem, and describes the disillusionment with capitalism that black people felt at the time.
“As black people often said,” she wrote, “‘Wasn’t no Communist country that put my grandpappa in slavery. Wasn’t no Communist lynched my poppa or raped my mamma.'”
The measure still passed, with 371 “yes” votes.