Maya Angelou: The Way She Made Us Feel
Perhaps we all read more, write more, and share more of our life stories thanks to Maya Angelou. The legendary poet, essayist and memoirist died today at the age of 86 in her hometown of Winston-Salem. As recent as Sunday, reports surfaced that Dr. Angelou had taken ill though no details were provided about the nature of the illness or its gravity.
The St. Louis native and citizen of the world, Maya Angelou, lived a storied and celebrated life memorialized in a series of literary works beginning with the autobiographical, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), a work that chronicles a rape at age 7 and a teen pregnancy resulting in the birth of a son, Guy Johnson. In that early work, she described the love of her grandmother, Annie Henderson, her father’s mother who lived in Stamps, Arkansas.
Dr. Angelou, as she (a high school dropout*) preferred to be called, lived a thousand lifetimes in 86 years. She said, “Each of us has that right, that possibility, to invent ourselves daily. If a person does not invent herself, she will be invented. So, to be bodacious enough to invent ourselves is wise.” Before the invention of Maya Angelou was the reality and iteration known as Marguerite Ann Johnson, who as a young girl was mute for 5 years. Marguerite at 16 would become San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor. To care for her son, she was a madam and a prostitute before marrying and moving to New York City to study dance with Pearl Primus.
There is entirely too much to tell about Marguerite or Maya in this short space. But it is worthy of mention that her life changed the day she heeded the advice of author, John Oliver Killens, who told her to write. Killens introduced her to the Harlem literary scene and as her writing career burgeoned so did her social activism. She was a fundraiser and supporter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK, Jr. would be assassinated on Maya Angelou’s 40th birthday.)
In the 1980s, Dr. Angelou was introduced to a larger and younger audience by way of her mentee, Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey fete Maya Angelou as her mentor on her popular daytime TV talk show. Soon the words of “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” were oft-quoted by suburban housewives, teenage girls and women all over the world as affirmations of worth and value.
It is safe to say that Maya Angelou did not seek the limelight, but it is even safer to say that she did not shrink from the attention. Why should she? Maya Angelou was a tall, statuesque woman with a throaty voice. She spoke with impeccable diction and unapologetic dignity. It is hard to imagine her being a woman waiting for permission to be heard or seen.
For me and many women, there is a Marguerite Johnson, Maya Angelou, and Dr. Angelou that has met us at various junctions of our lives. Knowing that to be true, we are grateful for her transparency, her candor, her mother wit and her fearlessness in sharing her life with us. Those of us who admired her may forget the words of her poems and quips, but we will never forget how she made us feel.
*Some sources state she was a dropout while others state that she actually graduated after returning back to high school.