BORN: APRIL 4, 1928
DIED: MAY 28, 2014
Maya Angelou was one of the world's most influential writers and activists. She lived and chronicled an extraordinary life: rising from poverty, violence, and racism, she became known as an author, poet, playwright, civil rights' activist, a singer, dancer, and actress.
She was the living example of enjoying life itself and recording the experience. There is no confusion as to her meaning when she issues a litany of imperatives to be fabulous, conscious, passionate and compassionate. Until her death in 2014, she merged her various talents into a kind of performance art – issuing a message of personal and social uplift by blending poetry, song and conversation.
She was a friend of Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She wrote and performed a poem foR Clinton’s inauguration and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
A professional hopemonger, her poems have titles such as Phenomenal Woman, Still I Rise and Weekend Glory
"Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Maya Angelou’s words, spoken or on the printed page, continue to promote self-examination, equality, friendship and freedom.
"All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart, which tells us that we are all more alike than we are unalike."
Her early childhood was turbulent and unstable. Her parents divorced when she was only 3 and she and her brother were sent to live with her grandmother. When she was 7, the siblings were returned to their mother and 2 years later, she was sexually assaulted by her mothers boyfriend. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. The man was found guilty but was jailed for only one day.
Four days after his release, he was murdered, most likely by Maya’s uncles. She did not speak for five years
"I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice could kill anyone."
It was during this period of silence that Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen to and observe the world around her.
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
She did not speak until a teacher named Bertha Flowers and encouraged her to explore her love of literature.
"Be a rainbow in someone else's cloud."
"The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in somebody else's cloud. Be a blessing to somebody"
In the late 1950’s Maya Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
"A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song."
Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings received international attention as it made the bestseller list, but at the same time was banned in many schools. Maya’s honesty about having been sexually abused opened a subject matter that had long been taboo in American culture.
"The caged bird sings with a fearful trill , of things unknown but longed for still"
To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn't have to go through half the things she did
"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."
Maya brought us a reminder that the human need for dignity and recognition is a gift easily given to one another, but frighteningly easy to withhold. Her fierce belief was that each of us has a deep worth – a simple yet profound fact. She was an indomitable force, famed for her spirit and style, courage and laughter.
"Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest without courage first."
Through her words, we have been nurtured. They helped us to see ourselves when we felt the least seen and least loved.
"You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise"
Though her childhood and ours may be many years separated, the echoes to shared experiences are uncanny. She writes of how the mind of a child does battle with darkness, the intricacies of complex families, the simple beauty of rural living, how horrific yet rather ordinary racism can be, and how a gifted spirit can find a way to soar. She shows us the overwhelming power of a great story well told, the way it could change hearts and change history.
"My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things …You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them … Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like … Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity"
She did that many times over. She is an Extraordinary Woman