By Surekha Vijh
WASHINGTON DC: A literary voice, who showed the world the beauty and power of words, admired globally for her poetic command and her commitment to civil rights became silent on May 28. Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Angelou’s first name Maya means “illusion” or the material world in Sanskrit and the name was shared by Gautama Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya.
Angelou told me, when I met her at a book store in New York City, that she understood the Indian meaning of her name. She was fascinated by the reincarnation theory. She believed that she had been born many times.
Angelou called Mahatma Gandhi truly a great soul, who brought changes in South Africa and India and mentored two civil rights activists, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. She exclaimed what sweeping changes these three men brought to the world. India got its independence, the US abolished segregation and South Africa revoked apartheid.
It was a coincidence that I met Maya Angelou, whom I admired among others great world writers, at the Barnes and Noble in upper Manhattan, where she had come to release her book, Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women. We had a poetry open mike, which that day I was leading. We requested for Angelou to read a poem, she agreed. It was really an honor to stand besides this legendary writer and hear her poem in her robust and moving voice.
She reminded me of Indian Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, who became a voice of the oppressed, her poem “Ik roi see dhee Punjab de tu likh likh mare vain,” when one daughter of Punjab cried you wrote so many lamentations and now so many daughters are crying…”
Angelou, who leaves behind a tapestry of artistic work that influenced many generations and a voice that pushed for justice, education and equality, was truly an internationalist, who belonged to the world and her work will inspire many around the world. After her passing people of all ages and backgrounds took to social media to say what her life’s work meant to them.
US President Obama called Angelou as “one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Obama said his own mother was so inspired by Angelou that she named his sister Maya, added that Angelou expressed her talents in many ways, but “above all, she was a storyteller” and “her greatest stories were true.”
In her full life, Maya Angelou wrote astoundingly beautiful poetry, plays, essays, screenplays and even a cookbook. She delivered a poem at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. She was the first poet to do so since Robert Frost in 1961. More notably, she was the first black woman to have such a prominent role. The poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” celebrates diversity of all people in America.
Angelou, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian honor, in her six memoirs render her many lives as one life. The memoir helped clear a path for the boom in black women’s writing, and the success of writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor and Toni Cade Bambara, among many others. She was friends with Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and inspired young adults and world celebrities, including Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah Winfrey released a statement calling Angelou her mentor, “mother/sister” and friend. “She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. The world knows her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her,” Winfrey said.
“But what stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. I loved her and I know she loved me. I will profoundly miss her. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”
Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. and growing up between St. Louis and the then-racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco, but dropped out of school at age 14. At 16, Angelou became San Francisco’s first female streetcar driver. She later returned to high school to get her diploma and gave birth a few weeks after graduation.
While the 17-year-old single mother waited tables to support her son, she developed a passion for music and dance, and toured Europe in the mid-1950s in the opera production “Porgy and Bess.”
She sang calypso. She lived through horror, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” bore witness to the brutality of a Jim Crow South, portraying racism in stark language. Readers learned of the life of Marguerite Ann Johnson (Angelou’s birth name) up to the age of 16: how she was abandoned by her parents and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She was homeless and became a teen mother.
Angelou the writer never went to college, but she had more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem and spoke at least six languages and worked as a newspaper editor in Egypt and Ghana.
The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy that stunned her into silence for years. When she was 7, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He was beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him.
“My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she said.
From the silence, a louder voice was born.
In her poem “Caged Bird,” Angelou wrote:
“A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped
and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.”
In Los Angeles, iconic music producer Quincy Jones said he was saddened to have lost a “dear friend, colleague and sister.” The two collaborated on two songs on Jones’ soundtrack for “For Love of Ivy” in 1968, he said, and working with her always “brought joy and love.”
Angelou’s poetic themes dealt with the painful anguish suffered by blacks forced into submission, with guilt over accepting too much, and with protest and basic survival. But she rose above bitterness.
“You’ll be surprised at how much better you will feel when you help others. And good done anywhere is good done everywhere.” Angelou remarked.
(Formerly with the Times of India in New Delhi, Surekha Vijh is a Washington DC-based journalist and poet)