Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Poet, critical memoirist, jazz singer, actor, producer, screenwriter, Civil Rights activist, and wise elder Maya Angelou died today at age 86. Her best-known work was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which relates her struggle to survive and literally regain her voice following the trauma of being raped at the age of eight and learning that her rapist had been murdered after she named him. She said that she believed that her voice had killed him and that she feared her voice could kill anyone. Caged Bird is also, of course, about the experience of being a black child growing up in the Jim-Crow South. “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl," she remarks in that book, "being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat."

I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at a women's writers conference in Seattle in the early 1980s. The auditorium literally could not hold all the people who wanted to hear her, meaning that some people had to be accommodated in an overflow space where they could listen to her live over the PA system. She was an electrifying speaker, and the power of her voice was matched by her physical presence. I have a vivid memory of how, before she began her prepared talk, she called out some bad--racist--behavior that had occurred during one of the conference's workshops. I think that may have been one of the first times I ever hear anyone call out a piece of local, specific bad behavior in this way, so openly and publicly, and it impressed me tremendously.

The New York Times' obituary has a video of Angelou's performance of the poem she wrote for President Bill Clinton's inauguration, as well as a slide show and summary of her life and work. Mother Jones is running a piece titled 7 Pieces of Timeless Wisdom from Maya Angelou. In the Guardian, Gary Younge's piece is titled Maya Angelou: American titan who lived as though there were no tomorrow, which begins with a description of how his scheduled 45-minute interview in 2002 turned into 16 hours during which the whiskey flowed freely.The best thing to do to remember her, of course, is to seek out her work.

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