By Amanda Seward.
On Wednesday, May 28, 2014 Maya Angelou died at the age of 86. Although I did not know her personally, as did Oprah Winfrey, who called her “mentor, mother/sister, and friend,” I was touched by her death. It is hard to describe why. Although I read most of her autobiographical books, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I did not see myself as a devotee and other than perhaps the poems, Still We Rise and Phenomenal Woman, I was not particularly familiar with her poetry. Yet I realized by my response to her passing she meant a great deal to me.
She has been called a lot of things, “diva of American culture,” “national treasure,” “America’s conscience,” “global renaissance woman,” and “icon.” She was all of these things. She was a dancer, writer, poet, film director, actor, civil rights activist, and teacher. She was a friend and supporter of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic and Fanti, a West African language and spent years working in Cairo, Egypt and Accra, Ghana. She was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet, she was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the play, Look Away, and won three Grammy Awards for her spoken word albums. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000, the Ford Theatre’s Lincoln Medal in 2008 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. She wrote and recited On the Pulse of Morning for the 1993 inauguration of President Clinton. She was honored with more than fifty honorary degrees. Jerry Offsay, former president of programming at Showtime, said that of the 310 movies he was involved with during his tenure at Showtime, the company premiered 50 films at film festivals around the world, including Down in the Delta, directed by Angelou, and before the film even played at the Toronto Film Festival, the audience gave Angelou a standing ovation. He said that he had not seen that kind of reaction before or since.
She certainly lived a full live. In the first book in her series of memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she described being sent on a train to the segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas at the age of 3 along with her brother, Bailey, who was 4, to live with their paternal grandmother after their parents divorced. When Angelou was 7, they were picked up in Stamps by their father and taken to St. Louis, Missouri to rejoin their mother and her relatives. Less than a year later, she was back in Stamps after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After testifying at the trial of her assailant, he was sentenced to a year in prison, but before he could serve his time, his lawyer somehow got him off and he was released. Within days, he was found dead, kicked to death, presumably by her uncles. Angelou was mostly mute for almost 5 years after, speaking rarely to anyone other than her brother. In her 7-year old mind, she thought that her voice had caused the death of someone. Still, she found solace in books, poems, and in a few close relationships. This first memoir ends when she is seventeen in San Francisco, where she is living with her mother and her new step father, and just borne a child within weeks of graduating from high school. Already, though, you see a person who loved others, who was loved, who was a listener and observer, who had courage, who had dignity in the worst of circumstances, someone who was just and still and curious and knew how to have a good time.
I was touched by an interview with comedian Dave Chappelle in which Angelou described an encounter on the set of Poetic Justice (1993), a movie directed by John Singleton featuring Angelou in a cameo appearance. She described walking out of her trailer to hear two men arguing vehemently with each other. She walked up to one and whispered can I get a word. He huffed and puffed. She asked, I understand that but can I speak with you a minute. The young man calmed and she said, do you know how important you are? Do you know our people lay spoon fashion in filthy slave ships in their and each others’ excrement, urine and menstrual flow so that you could live 200 years later. They stood on auction blocks so that you could live. When is the last time someone told you how important you are? The young man started to tear. Angelou said she wiped his tears with her hands and talked with him. Afterwards Janet Jackson who was starring in the movie came up to her and said, “Dr. Angelou I don’t believe you were actually talking with Tupac Shakur.” Angelou said she had no idea who Shakur was. Shakur’s mother later wrote Angelou saying that he told her about the incident and started thinking a little differently.
Winfrey said that above all Angelou was a teacher. And yes she was. At her death, she had a lifetime appointment at Wake Forest University. Yet, as Offsay said, she was also a listener. When one spoke, she heard you. He also told me that she had a quietness about her that was rare.
As I reflect on her life, I know we have lost an intelligent and courageous voice, but in so many ways she remains with us in her writings, her interviews and her teachings. There are many life lessons she shared. One is to have courage. She said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Without courage, you will say “the threat is too much, the difficulty too high and the challenge is too great.” She did not let racism, sexism, poverty, or abuse stand in her way of living life fully.
She said that the most important blessings for her were first her child, and then the others that she loved, that we needed to listen to each other and really hear each other. She seemed to live this creed. Her son was once asked did he ever feel he was growing up in her shadow. He responded, “No, I didn’t. I grew up in her light.”
I will try not to look at her as an icon, because, as she explained, it is hard to measure up to an icon and we are all human. Her life has more meaning if she can help us be our best selves and if we don’t write her off as an impossible standard. She was accessible, she danced, she smoked and she enjoyed Johnnie Walker Blue. With all of that and more, I cannot help but think there is no more appropriate person to be greeted, “Thou art my good and faithful servant with whom I am well pleased.” RIP Maya Angelou.