Dr. Maya Angelou (née Marguerite Ann Johnson): 4 April 1928 – 28 May 2014
I literally shed tears when I saw the news…Dr. Maya Angelou – author, poet, songstress, honored recipient of multiple awards, and renowned “Global Renaissance Woman” – passed away on 28 May, at the age of 86. She died in her sleep at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Words still can’t convey the sadness I feel, even after watching re-airings of some of her many interviews – part of that sadness is due to the fact that I hoped to meet her and have her read my book. At the same time, I know that I should honor and celebrate the fantastic, rich, full life that she led. I feel blessed that I had the privilege to read her writings and glean some life-altering lessons from them. My most important personal motto, “Everything in moderation – including moderation” was learned from her.
I watched the live presentation of her memorial service that was held just this past Saturday, 7 June – the most touching eulogy was given by Maya’s son, Guy, who eloquently stated that “I did not grow up in her shadow…I grew up in her light.” His voice broke when he mentioned her failing health, and the physical pain she endured from chronic respiratory failure. Other wonderful memories were shared by First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, former President Bill Clinton, and Maya’s personal pastor – his commentary was amazing.
Dr. Angelou is one of very few females that I’ve ever admired, past or present. I looked up to her with reverence the day I learned her name, and she instantly became a woman that I aspired to emulate in many ways. Such talent! What grace! Few people know first-hand the brutality that she endured, but there are many of us who were forced into similar experiences. Do I know why the caged bird sings? Oh, yes…yes, and yes, and yes again. She wrote that book before I was born, and I read it when I was aged 10. It resonates with me now, just as much as it did those many years ago. To not speak for close to six years…I understand what drives one to do that. I was a voracious reader who lost (and then found) herself in books and music after my own violation…we sensitive, creative types do what we must to shelter our tender selves from the sicknesses of others.
Digressing…I devoured Dr. Angelou’s poetry and books whenever I got the chance, but had only recently learned of her early singing career – what a voice! That powerful, orator’s tenor was perfect as a contralto singer of calypso. She appeared in the 1977 movie “Roots” and the 1993 film “Poetic Justice,” but her film career began long before that. From her website:
“In 1954 and 1955, Dr. Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows and, in 1957, recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom.
In 1960, Dr. Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.”
Dr. Angelou was a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest Park University, and has received over 50 honorary degrees. She delivered the powerful poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Clinton’s first inauguration and served on two presidential committes. She travelled around the world, spoke five languages (besides English), and worked closely with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – I can imagine the conversations they all must be having with each other in the afterlife! More from her website:
“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 him build his new 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.”
One of the television interviews I happened across was Dr. Angelou speaking with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC. Ms. Harris-Perry apparently worked for Dr. Angelou shortly after graduating in 1994, so was one of many women fortunate enough to know her personally – Dr. Angelou even hosted Melissa’s wedding reception, from what she stated. Anyway, the words that struck close to home were these – apologies for my clumsy paraphrasing:
“Courage is the most important virtue one can possess…When you find the courage to stand up for yourself as a human being, then you find the courage to stand up for other human beings…Imagine what this country could be like if people allowed themselves to be truly intelligent…Being a woman doesn’t mean that I’m a ‘B’; being Black doesn’t mean that I’m an ‘N’, and being an American doesn’t mean that I’m a fool or a criminal.”
Those are wise, true, and powerful words from a strong, wise, courageous, powerful woman. She refused to be embittered by her past experiences, and that is something I strive to attain for my own personal growth. I’m not completely bitter, but I am cynical…and that is a trait that stifles growth. Too many people say, “This, that, and the other happened to me so I’m going to blame X and hate Y and wrap myself in self-pity to justify being a stunted, bitter, miserable individual.” I don’t have time for people like that, and I don’t want to be a person like that. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth having comes easy!
Maya Angelou was another amazing Aries dynamo! Actress, singer, activist, artist, professor, teacher, warrior, author, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother…the list of her accomplishments is long. I don’t know what else to say that hasn’t already been stated by the many other people who knew her best, so I’ll close with some notable quotes written and spoken by this beautiful, talented, intelligent, vibrant, forgiving, shining star of a woman and a genuine human being. Rest easily, sweet sister…you were truly golden. Phenomenal woman…your logic and wisdom is needed more than ever these days.