Today we must say goodbye to the body of Maya Angelou — which is especially difficult with someone like this, who traded in the ageless. Her extraordinary life, now able to be taken as a whole, is as daunting as it is impressive.
Dancer, educator, sex worker, activist, speaker, singer, streetcar conductor, author, poet, Hallmark card curator and composer, Maya Angelou lived a fierce and distinguished life. She was recognized as few other Americans have been, winning Grammys, a Tony, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of Arts, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and dozens of honorary degrees. She was the second person to ever read poetry at a presidential inauguration. Perhaps her greatest achievement was the extent to which she loved herself, in a culture not given to convey that message to someone like her.
“I agreed a long time ago,” she tweeted earlier this year, “I would not live at any cost. If I am moved or forced away from what I think is the right thing, I will not do it.”
She was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis on April 4, 1928. Because of an unstable home life, she and her brother were sent to live with their relatively prosperous grandmother. After their father’s sudden reappearance a few years later, they were returned to their mother. It was here, around the age of 8, that Marguerite was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother about her assault, and the man was later murdered, probably by her relatives. As a result, Marguerite stopped speaking.
“I thought, my voice killed him,” she wrote in her 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” “I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone." The silence lasted for almost five years.
Angelou was sent again to live with her grandmother, and was brought back to life through literature, shown to her by Bertha Flowers, a family friend and teacher. At 14, Maya was living with her mother again. By 17, she was a mother herself and the family dropped into poverty.
After a brief career as a calypso singer and dancer (changing her name to fit the music), Angelou turned to writing. She also acted with James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson and danced with Alvin Ailey. She raised funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The assassination of both men (King was killed on Angelou’s 40th birthday) may have knocked her out of her emotional frame, but ultimately brought about the full flowering of her genius. In 1968, Angelou wrote and produced “Blacks, Blues, Black!,” a 10-part documentary series, and, at the urging of her beloved friend James Baldwin, she wrote her first memoir.
What followed was a flurry of writing, speaking and composing. Angelou’s film "Georgia, Georgia" was the first screenplay by a black woman, and she composed the score to boot. She played a small part in the groundbreaking miniseries "Roots" and became Oprah Winfrey’s friend and mentor. From 1982 she was the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, teaching about whatever interested her, from philosophy to ethics to the theater. She died in Winston-Salem this morning, after having taught for more than 30 years.
Angelou transcended the apparent boundaries and impediments of race, color and income, not only to become her complete and magnificent self but to help return ourselves to us. “We are growing up,” she noted after Barack Obama’s election, "beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism."
The time in her youth when Angelou fell silent, initially caused by guilt, allowed her to observe more, remember more, learn more. When she regained her voice, and she used it to write and sing and dance and speak, it became quintessentially American. It was measured, thoughtful and authoritative, informed as it was by suffering and redemption. Every word was enunciated as deliberately as it was chosen. We will not hear that voice speak again, but we can always listen to what it had to say.
“I am grateful,” she said, “to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold — that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind.”