Maya Angelou – (April 4, 1928 – May, 28, 2014)
As tributes poured at the announcement of the death of our beloved Dr. Maya Angelou, it was clear that many of us felt a kinship with her. It was more than her clear gaze, rich voice, and erect carriage that drew our attention as children gathered around an elder, pupils hovered around a griot. That gaze took our measure and commanded us to be better. That voice, rich with calloused life experience, laid that life bare. Her unapologetic honesty resonated with those silenced in their own pain and helped to give them voice. Her physique was a mystery; a dignified expression of survival that we could also achieve. Even her name, “Maya,” a nickname given to her by her brother, Bailey, seemed to make her ours. It emphasized that fictive kinship so widely understood. It was as if a favored aunt had died on May 28, 2014.
Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, Angelou epitomized the term Renaissance woman. As a poet, playwright, actress, dancer, singer/songwriter, director, civil rights activist, teacher and most notably a memoirist, Maya Angelou lived a life of rebirth. Childhood rape, poverty, and teenaged motherhood did not limit her possibilities. Instead, she made her life a roadmap of wondrous transformation and shared it with a viewing public who read her work, attended her lectures, and witnessed her performances. At the time of her death, she claimed a catalogue of seven (7) memoirs beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, penned collections of countless poems, including the inaugural poem On the Pulse of the Morning under then-President Bill Clinton, received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in “Look Away”, won three Grammy awards for spoken work production, and was presented with the 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou, who never attended college, was an educator who intoned famously to Oprah Winfrey, “When you learn, teach, when you get, give”. She was awarded over thirty doctorates and received the Reynolds Professorship at Wake Forest University, where she taught American Studies. These are only a portion of the mark she made in the world.
Angelou was primarily a humanitarian, working both in front and behind the scenes. This is demonstrated in the simple way she determined to learn the languages of the international places she visited. In the 1960s she performed and raised funds for civil rights organizations, and became the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She lived and worked for a time in Cairo, Egypt and Accra, Ghana, as a free-lance journalist, university administrator, and theatrical performer. Back in the United States in the mid to late 1960s, Angelou aided Malcolm X in forming the Organization of Afro-American Unity shortly before his assassination in 1965 and was tapped to organize a march for Martin Luther King prior to his own assassination in 1968, which happened to be her 40th birthday. International acclaim for her writing began after this painful period with the publishing of Caged Bird in 1969. She spent subsequent years producing additional memoirs and poetry that speaks to the human experience, primarily the black woman’s human experience. She went on to act in film, including Alex Haley’s “Roots” (1977) and her poetry has been featured, along with her own appearances, in John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice” (1993) and Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Family Reunion” (2006). Angelou also directed “Down in the Delta” (1998). Human dignity is the thread woven throughout all of her performances and work experience.
Maya Angelou was a quotable resource. Her truth telling gave instructions. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”. Her inspirational words were developed into a Hallmark greeting card collection in the early to mid- 2000’s. Additionally, young women across the nation recited her poems “And Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” in talent shows, pageants, and poetry performances. She was touted for instilling, through her poetry, esteem in black women concerning their bodies, beauty, and behavior.
Only a humanitarian of the highest caliber could earn a publically televised funeral, in the way the Coretta Scott King was memorialized. It was no celebrity spectacle; perhaps the spectacle was me, viewing the services, along with a friend, on my living room couch. We participated in the service by proxy, with the urgent need to witness the homegoing. On Saturday, June 7, 2014 we attended to her – like we had her poetic renderings while on tour across the nation – one last time. Our attention was our greatest respect. We all suffered a generational loss, and the weight loomed large. We, her actual and fictive kin, mourned her public and private personas, and her resulting relationships with all of us, separately and together.
Shanna L. Smith is author of “Being Neighborly: Performance in Seen It All and Done the Rest”, Pearl Cleage and Free Womanhood (McFarland & Company, 2012). She is a Frederick Douglass Teaching Scholar in the English Department at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.