Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Remembering Maya Angelou (1928-2014)


My first glimpse of Maya Angelou came as a teenager when I read her searingly raw memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember being touched by how honestly she shared her painful childhood story of sexual abuse, silence, and neglect.

In college, I traveled across town in Tacoma, Washington, to a neighboring college (University of Puget Sound) to hear Ms. Angelou speak for the first time. She mesmerized me. Later on, I heard her speak again--this time with Mike--at the University of Portland.

If you'd like to know more about Maya Angelou, I recommend this photo biography: Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration, by Marcia Ann Gillespie, or her several autobiographies. A few years ago I read Letters to My Daughter, in which she shares bite-size wisdom with the daughter she never had. I liked it, but it was not as strong as some of her earlier work. I have only read the first of her autobiographies (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), so I think I need to go back and read them all.

Did you know?
  • She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on her 40th birthday.
  • She didn't speak for almost 5 years, as a child, after she was raped by her mother's boyfriend at the age of 8.
  • Her grandmother raised her, and she had a complicated relationship with her mother.
  • She worked as the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco before graduating from high school.
  • Three weeks after graduating, she gave birth to her son Clyde at the age of 17.
  • Before becoming a writer, she worked as a fry cook, nightclub dancer and performer, prostitute, opera singer, community activist (for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and journalist in Egypt and Ghana.
  • She studied African dance, had a popular nightclub act, and toured Europe as member of the "Porgy and Bess" production.
  • She wrote seven autobiographies, three essay collections, and several poetry books, in addition to plays, movies, and TV shows.
  • When she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's inauguration, she was the first poet to speak at the inauguration since Robert Frost spoke at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.
  • She campaigned for Hillary Clinton until Clinton ended her presidential bid, and then she threw her support behind Barack Obama.
  • She didn't earn a university degree (not counting several honorary degrees), but she preferred to be called "Dr. Angelou" in public.
  • She loved to cook and hosted many dinner parties in her home. Hallelujah! The Welcome Table! has 73 recipes and 28 vignettes about food. Another cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart, focused on healthier cooking.
  • She had a daily writing ritual of waking early in the morning and checking into a hotel room without any pictures on the walls. She wrote on legal pads while lying in bed, with a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, a thesaurus, and a Bible. In the evening, she would edit her 10 to 12 pages of writing. She considered writing to be cathartic and a way to "tell the human truth." The playing cards helped her access her memories.
  • As an actress, she appeared in many plays, films, and TV programs, including "Roots" in 1977. She was the first black woman to have a screenplay produced and the first to direct a major film ("Down in the Delta" in 1998). 
  • She gave around 80 lectures per year into her 80s.
Receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011
All my friends have at least one favorite Maya Angelou quote. I can't possibly choose just one. Her words and life touched so many people.

As a proud, powerful Black woman, raped as a child and raised in poverty, she faced double whammies of racism and discrimination yet rose up to be a phenomenal woman--full of grace, forgiveness, righteous anger and activism, inspiration, and compassion. Such a huge loss.

First we lost Nelson Mandela--Angelou's friend--six months ago, and now her. This morning I listened to this poem she wrote for Mandela, and the tears flowed. I leave you with these excerpts from that poem, adapted slightly:


Her day is done.
Is done.
The news came on the wings of a wind
Reluctant to carry its burden.


The news, expected and still unwelcome
Reached us...and suddenly
Our world became somber.
Our skies were leadened
Her day is done.


She has offered us understanding
We will not withhold forgiveness
Even from those who do not ask
Maya Angelou's day is done
We confess it in tearful voices
Yet we lift our own to say
Thank You.


We will not forget you
We will not dishonor you
We will remember and be glad
That you lived among us
That you taught us
And
That you loved us
All!





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