Today we learnt the sad news that Maya Angelou, an American poet laureate and civil rights activist who also had a prosperous career as an actress, playwright, and singer (among other things), has died at the age of 86.
Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou grew up in that city and the segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. She studied dance and drama in San Francisco, dropping out of school at 14 and later becoming the city’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She toured Europe in the 1950s in George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s Porgy and Bess, and recorded her first album, Calypso Lady, in 1957.
In 1961, Angelou starred as Queen in Jean Genet’s The Blacks at St. Mark’s Playhouse. It was one of two New York stage appearances she made; the other, a Tony-nominated performance as dress-maker Elizabeth Keckley in Jerome Kilty’s Mary Todd Lincoln bio-play, Look Away, ran for one night in 1973 at Broadway’s now defunct Playhouse Theatre. She received an Emmy nomination for her performance in the landmark television miniseries Roots, and also authored the plays The Least of These, Gettin’ Up Stayed on My Mind, and Cabaret for Freedom, among others. Angelou was a prominent presence in Harlem through the decades, contributing to local charities, visiting jazz clubs and hosting her many friends at her home on W. 120th St.
Angelou never went to college, though over the course of her life, she received more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is perhaps most famous for her poetry, including On the Pulse of Morning, which she read at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, and her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She received an honorary National Book Award in 2013, as well as the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Maya Angelou was a phenomenal woman and writer, her ability with the spoken and written word never ceased to stop me in my tracks. I can even remember the first time her work came into my life, it was during a visit at Yakymour – the home of Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan, grandma Yaky – and the work was her poem Still I Rise.
It is a magnificent poem, that is filled with defiant imagery, urging a never-ending battle with oppression and negativity with grace and pride as your weapons. The poem covers slavery and sexism with the occurring question of what is offending the recipient of the verse. “Does my sassiness upset you?” “Does my haughtiness offend you?” and “Does my sexiness offend you?” she asks. It’s so provocative, and after reading more about her story it just becomes filled with inspiring strength.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise. I rise.
With the loss of Maya Angelou, the world has lost unmatched wisdom. Over the years she has shared some globally quoted sayings, many which are so relatable to us all, no matter who you are or where you came frome. Spoken with a voice that is full of sorrow, joy, pain and strength. She was a giant on whose shoulders many people have been able to stand and achieve greatness.