As we celebrate Black History Month this year, we are as usual reminded of the many inspirational black pioneers who overcame the struggles and tribulations of their ancestors in order to forge our ever growing equal society. Yet, this year the profound loss the world has felt with the late Maya Angelou’s passing introduces a certain bitter sweetness as we commemorate her extraordinary life and contribution to society.
The American poet and author, died quietly in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on the 28th May, aged 86. As her health slowly deteriorated, her determination to serve her international community surpassingly prevailed. Despite her age, Angelou faithfully delivered a never-ending stream of illustrious speeches, making around 80 appearances a year spanning from the 1990s up until her passing. Cancelling appearances such as El Paso Children’s Hospital Foundation’s 2014 Milagro Gala and even unable to collect her own Beacon of Life Award (part of the Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Games), she thought not of her own condition but of the public who were relying on her. Speaking only a month before her death, the remarkable resolve that inspired not only those in the black community but the whole world was evident as she wrote: ‘’ An unexpected ailment put me into the hospital. I will be getting better and the time will come when I can receive another invitation from my state and you will recognize me for I shall be the tall Black lady smiling.’’
Championing the past for a better future
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, 1928, Dr Maya Angelou had nothing short of a tough childhood. Regardless of her own individual trials, her social and environmental circumstances did nothing to augment her quality of life. Born at the cusp of the Great Depression and growing up in the segregated south meant that she lived through a time faced with both racial and economic obstacles. As she wrote in the confessional 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings “If growing up is painful for the southern black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” At only 8 years old Angelou was raped and abused by her mother’s boyfriend (who was subsequently murdered after Angelou told her brother), and resulted in Angelou becoming mute for almost five years. Her intrinsic relationship with words and language were apparent even at this young age, as her trauma led to her believing that she had ‘killed’ her abuser by telling her brother his name. As Angelou’s biography, Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration insinuates, her self-imposed silence was a prominent factor in the development of her love for literature and formed the perceptive woman the world knew and loved.
Despite such misfortune, it is these hardships that have shaped the writer that Angelou is today ensuring that she is the exemplar role of a woman who has survived monumental adversity (only further enforced by her 1992 Horatio Alger Award). Angelou transcended her title as a poet and possessed an array of occupations throughout her life including fry cook, prostitute, nightclub dancer and performer, and journalist, before becoming more established. Over 50 years she has published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, countless books of poetry, and was credited as a producer, director and actor within plays, movies, and television shows.
She received international recognition with her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as the world became fascinated with her frank honesty in her she publicly discussed her own personal experiences in her now distinguishable vivid manner. Angelou challenged the boundaries of autobiographical fiction with a modified literary structure that resulted in her works widespread appeal. However despite personal accomplishment, Angelou never failed to recognise her community, with her third volume of poetry And Still I Rise (1978) being the centre of an advertising campaign for the United Negro College Fund. Her works can almost be seen as an extended metaphor for the resiliency of her community, as she championed racial equality.
Her legacy lives on
Working alongside the celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as an active member of the Civil Rights movement, Angelou’s role as woman and one of black descent empowered many and established her as a dominant feminist spokesperson. Despite attempts at banning her books from some U.S. libraries, her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide, with Angelou even possessing the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University, something that undoubtedly only served to enforce her unbeatable intellectual power. Her prowess and ability to touch people of all races and walks of life led to Angelou being the first female black poet to make an inaugural recitation as she read On the Pulse of the Morning at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. Speaking on her death, Clinton asserted that “America has lost a national treasure’’ and that he would “always be grateful for her electrifying reading…’’
Angelou as ever remained outspoken and opinionated in her older years as she surprisingly supported Hillary Clinton over her compatriot Barack Obama in the 2008 American presidential campaign. An act that was critiqued by many within the black community simply proved Angelou’s loyal and fair nature. Her refusal to succumb to crowd sentiment confirmed her deep rooted values in racial equality for all races, as she told the Guardian, “I made up my mind 15 years ago that if she ever ran for office I’d be on her wagon. My only difficulty with Senator Obama is that I believe in going out with who I went in with.” Despite this, respect for Maya Angelou transcends all political and social inclination as President Barack Obama presented her the country’s highest civilian honour in 2010, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Although Angelou seemed to succeed exceptionally in everything she attempted, receiving dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees, her spirit will never be able to be captured by any number of titles. It is her power and unconditional love for those around her that will resonate even after her death, as she has imprinted her unprejudiced nature on a nation that was once consumed with slavery. As her son, Guy B Johnson perfectly encapsulated, ‘‘she lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.’’