People

The Phenomenal Woman: Remembering Dr. Maya Angelou

A LIBRARY BURNS TO THE GROUND

Maya Angelou (by Kate Merriman)

Maya Angelou (by Kate Merriman)

History suffers a great loss with the death of each elder in a community, but when a woman dies, it is a whole school that burns to the ground. So it is with our world today, whenin the early hours of Wednesday, May 28, 2014, the world awoke to the news that a literary voice revered globally for her poetic command and her commitment to social justice and civil rights silently fell. In short, the award winning author, poet and phenomenal woman, Dr. Maya Angelou, died at the ripe age of 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We all know one day she would pass on to ancestor-hood, but the news came on the wings of a wind, reluctant to carry its burden. Indeed, the news of her death was unwelcomed and suddenly our world became somber and our skies leadened with tears.

 

WHO IS Dr. MAYA ANGELOU?

Dr. Maya Angelou was born on Wednesday, April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. Her birth name, up to the age of 16, was actually Marguerite Ann Johnson. She grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya”, derived from “My” or “Mya Sister”.The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy that stunned her into silence for years. When she was 7, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. The man was beaten to death by an angry mob after she testified against him in court and the man was jailed for only a day. After the death of the man, young Angelou went into a self-imposed silence. According to Dr. Maya Angelou, “My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years.” Interestingly, from that silence, a louder voice was born. In her poem “Caged Bird,” Angelou alludes to this: “A free bird leaps/on the back of the wind/and floats downstream/till the current ends/and dips his wing/in the orange sun rays/and dares to claim the sky.” Her teen years encountered unbearable challenges that only a God-guided soul could endure. She lived through horrors, battled with melancholy that bruised her spirit but did not conquer her soul. Her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” bears witness to some of these challenges: the brutality of a Jim Crow South, the portrayal of racism in stark language, her being abandoned by her parents and raped by her mother’s boyfriend and how she became homeless and a teen mother, and sang calypso to support herself. Her life was daunting but none of these stopped her from achieving her dreams. She was the captain of her soul.

FROM DROPOUT TO Dr. MAYA ANGELOU

Angelou once said “I created myself; I have taught myself so much.” Her ambition was made of a sterner stuff. She spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco, but dropped out of school at age 14. When she was 16, Angelou became San Francisco’s first female streetcar driver. She later returned to high school to get her diploma. She gave birth a few weeks after graduation. While the 17-year-old single mother waited tables to support her son, she developed a passion for music and dance, and toured Europe in the mid-1950s in the opera production “Porgy and Bess.” In 1957, she recorded her first album, “Miss Calypso.” In 1958, Angelou become a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and played a queen in “The Blacks,” an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet.

In 1960, Dr. Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The following year, she moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, and worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. During her years abroad, Dr. Angelou read and studied voraciously, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language, Fanti. While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America to help build the Organization of African American Unity.

Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved. Soon after X’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Dr. Angelou to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King’s assassination, falling on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated. During this time, Angelou wrote her most popular—and perhaps her most controversial—book to date. In this memoir, she recalled her journey as a child, born into this world of woes and revealed how she overcame the childhood trauma. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will become a mainstay on students’ reading lists, much to the chagrin of some authorities. The book was reportedly banned numerous times.

Indeed, Dr. Maya Angelou never went to college, but she has more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. People who knew her well say, she not only survived, but she thrived just by being herself. This is what makes Maya Angelou a teacher, a mentor, and a friend to many because her impact on their lives will always have a special place in their hearts. Until her death, Maya Angelou published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than 50 years.

IT’S A LONG JOURNEY

Dr. Maya Angelou once wrote, “Look where we’ve all come from … coming out of darkness, moving toward the light; it is a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.” The writings of Angelou exemplify the long road she traveled. This makes her autobiographical works to have an important place in the African American tradition of personal narratives, and they will continue to garner praise for their honesty and moving sense of dignity. Angelou once explained that she is “not afraid of the ties (between past and present). I cherish them, rather. It’s the vulnerability … it’s allowing oneself to be hypnotized. That’s frightening because we have no defenses, nothing. We’ve slipped down the well and every side is slippery. And how on earth are you going to come out? That’s scary. But I’ve chosen it, and I’ve chosen this mode as my mode.” Through her narratives, Angelou has broken many grounds in history and told stories that were not allowed to be told. Now, people are free to tell all sorts of things in their memoirs, but her ways of telling her story are different. When she told them, she told the truth, she challenged a taboo—not for shock value, but to heal humanity.

In a 2009 CNN interview, Angelou spoke in the way that she came to be famous for, each sentence a crescendo of emotions, a call to everyone to act and to be better. She said, “Our country needs us all right now to stand up and be counted. We need to try to be great citizens. We are necessary in this country, and we need to give something — that is to say, go to a local hospital, go to the children’s ward and offer to the nurse in charge an hour twice a month that you can give them reading children’s stories or poetry. And go to an old folks’ home and read the newspaper to somebody. Go to your church or your synagogue or your mosque, and say, ‘I’d like to be of service. I have one hour twice a month.’ You’ll be surprised at how much better you will feel. And good done anywhere is good done everywhere.”

WHAT IS HER LEGACY TO THE WORLD?

Maya Angelou has been a towering figure not only at Wake Forest University and in American culture but the world over. She had a profound influence on civil rights and racial reconciliation in America as well as on the continent of Africa. Her legacy is twofold. She leaves behind a body of important artistic work that influenced several generations. But the 86-year-old poet, novelist, singer and actor will best be remembered by those who knew her very well as a good person, a woman who pushed for justice and education and equality. In her full life, she wrote staggeringly beautiful poetry. She also wrote a cookbook and was nominated for a Tony. In 2010, President Barack Obama named her a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which became an international bestseller and nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 is work of art which eludes description. When talking about her methods of teaching, Dr. Maya Angelou says, “I teach all the time, as you do and as all of you do—whether we know it or not, whether we take responsibility for it or not. I hold nothing back because I want to see that light go off. I like to see the children say, ‘I never thought of that before.’ And I think, I’ve got them!'” >

Image by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In a reaction to the passing away of Dr. Maya Angelou, President Obama said she was “one of the brightest lights of our time, a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” President Obama noted that she expressed her talents in many ways, but “above all, she was a storyteller” and “her greatest stories were true.” The president said his own mother was so inspired by Angelou that she named his sister Maya. In Los Angeles, iconic music producer Quincy Jones said he was saddened to have lost a “dear friend, colleague and sister.” The two collaborated on two songs on Jones’ soundtrack for “For Love of Ivy” in 1968, he said, and working with her always “brought joy and love.”

One thing American will never forget about Dr. Maya Angelou is when she read the poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She was the first poet to do so since Robert Frost in 1961. More notably, she was the first black woman to have such a prominent role. The poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” celebrates diversity of all people in America. In fact, Dr. Maya Angelou had a tremendous influence on popular American culture. Her reading introduced a younger generation to her and her pivotal body of work.

Today, the world joins hands with the United States and in particular the people of North Carolina to mourn the loss of a beloved poet, author, actress, civil rights activist and professor, Dr. Maya Angelou. Dr. Angelou was a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world, including countless students, faculty, and staff of universities. Though death has robbed the world of Dr. Maya Angelou, humanity knows her as a trailblazer, an advocate for women and civil rights, and one of the greatest literary voices of our time. She embodied courage. She spoke the truth and stood up for what was right, and in doing so she inspired others to do the same. While the literary world has lost a strong and powerful voice, Dr. Maya Angelou’s legacy is firmly and tightly woven into the foundation of what makes literature great.

IN CONCLUSION

To the world, Dr. Maya Angelou in her life won three Grammys, spoke six languages and was the second poet in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. But what should stand out most to mankind about Dr. Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life—her journey from shackles of oppression to mantels of hope. According Oprah Winfrey, “She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace.” We will not forget Dr. Maya Angelou, instead, we will remember and be glad that she lived among us, that she taught us, and that she loved us all. We will forever remain in awe of her greatness of spirit and talent. To all generations, she is the one who looked into the deep hollow dark night, walked through fires for justice to extend a hand; she looked closely into the smallest cracks in the meanest streets and held out hands of hope; she is the one who spoke the truth and the poor, the powerless, the forgotten, those tattered and forgotten heard a symphony, a great clap of thunder—a thousand voices chanting their favorite word, justice, and the sky opened and let out the rain that’s cool and pure. Indeed, we are all in her debt for many of her contributions to our world, but most of all, her showing us by example her passion for life and the courage with which she lived it.

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Image: Eric E Castro via Flickr

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