“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
Maya Angelou – poet, author and so much more– passed away yesterday. She was 86 years old.
One summer, when I was eleven, I raided my mother’s bookshelf out of sheer boredom. Having been a very active feminist in her younger years, her shelves were filled with Beauvoir, Greer and other books which completely failed to draw my eye. About to abandon the idea, I suddenly came upon a small book with a drawing on the cover of a girl. The girl was black and wore a green dress, her feet bare and her eyes cast down. She was looking at something in her hands. In the distance, a ramshackle house stood. The book was called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Intrigued by the cover, I began to read and was unable to stop. Here was a young girl – like me, and yet so not like me. I read about rape and about racism, about poverty and abandonment. At the heart of the book, however, a hopeful voice in love with words. I was stunned when I realised that the story in the book was not fiction. The bookshelf yielded another two autobiographical volumes as well as a collection of poetry and it was this which took my breath away. Beneath the beautiful words was always the fiery, stubborn, joyous, laughing, heartbroken, human Maya.
Given that this is an obituary article, I will attempt to recount details about Angelou’s life. However, please know that hers was a life that cannot be summed up so briefly. Any facts listed below cannot convey her talent, the struggles she endured or how much she meant to so many people.
Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson in Missouri in 1928 and nicknamed ‘Maya’ by her brother, lived an incredible life by any standards. After a tumultuous childhood during which she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and thereafter selectively mute for five years, Maya gave birth to a son at 17. Following this, she worked as a cook, a prostitute and myriad other occupations to support her child. However, her love of the written word and the arts remained and she eventually became a dancer and a singer. It was at this point that she took the name which would one day be emblazoned across book covers worldwide.
She joined the Harlem Writers’ Guild in 1959 and began associating with the great African-American writers of the time, meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and becoming deeply involved in the civil rights movement. This was followed by a move to Africa – first to Cairo, where she worked as a newspaper editor, and then to Ghana in 1962. It was here that she met and befriended Malcolm X and worked closely with him before his assassination. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on her 40th birthday and Angelou sank into depression.
Rallying from this, she exploded into creative action, writing and producing a documentary series and completing the first part of her autobiography, the aforementioned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969. The book was immediately popular with both critics and the public and from here Angelou’s career launched into the stratosphere. It would be impossible to list all her achievements, which included dozens of honorary degrees, awards, acting roles and a never-ending torrent of words in the form of articles, books, scripts, poetry and stories. She accepted a university post and became a beloved teacher.
After her recitation of the poem ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at the inauguration of President Clinton in 1993, Angelou’s talent continued to break down boundaries and she was involved with countless projects including a 1995 reading for the UN and the directing of her first film (the first African-American woman to do so). She travelled the country in her tour bus giving lectures until shortly before she died and published the seventh and final volume of her autobiography, Mom & Me & Mom, in 2013.
Throughout her life, Maya Angelou encouraged women to be strong and to fight for what they wanted (quote: ‘Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass’).Now that she is gone, her legacy takes the fitting form of words. If you are unfamiliar with her work, I implore you to start reading.
Finally, here are two of her most famous poems, read by the original Phenomenal Woman: