I once had the privilege of hearing Maya Angelou in person. It was October 29, 1999. She was 71 then, and as graceful and beautiful a woman as I have ever seen. Grace, humor, humility, suffering, joy, humanity, and energy are all words that can be applied to Angelou, who died today, May 28, 2014, at age 86.
She was supposed to deliver a talk on something else that night, to about 5500 students, faculty and assorted other people in the audience at Central Michigan University’s Rose Arena. She was beautifully dressed and beautifully composed. Her voice was measured and emotional at times. She, who had acted in movies, directed, and been in the public eye much of her adult life was at home anywhere she had an audience.
Angelou said she wanted to talk about love that night. She had recently been reminded of an old love. She told us her age, and said she was not too old for love, that no one is too old for love, and regaled us with some love poems of other African-American Poets. She was totally captivating. Her voice and her cadence were rhythmic and captivating. She had the energy of someone half her age.
On the event of President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, she performed her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.” What a fitting choice to recite this poem on that occasion. That poem, which says, in small part, “Give birth again/To the dream,” is a poem full of historical and pre-historical perspective, with sweeping brushstrokes of images from the beginning of Earthly time, to the here and now where she ends on a note of hope. It was perfect for the feeling of hope the nation has when a new president takes office, which is always somewhat symbolic of renewal in our faith in country and in the ideals of democracy.
Angelou always spoke on behalf of women, of minorities, of human rights, and for the right to challenge old ways of thinking when they showed they did not work. Her life was a testament to what one person can do to change her life and circumstances.
Her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is autobiographical, and worth reading, if you have not. It is a realistic telling of her young life, without sentimentality, but it is beautiful in its honesty. The title of her book is homage to African American poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and his poem, titled, “Sympathy.” The speaker is African American, and through the metaphor of the caged bird, shows he has sympathy and understanding for the bird, “when he beats his bars and he would be free.”
It is Dunbar’s empathy about a lack of freedom that makes the poem timeless. Angelou’s life never wavered from doing what she wanted, but she was also bound by the struggle of others, and of inequality anywhere. She never forgot some still live in slavery; the slavery of women across the globe without rights, the slavery of those in the sex trades, the slavery of those in poverty, ignorance, and addictions. She never forgot the past, but was always hopeful the new day would bring a better world. She touched the lives of millions, and her work will continue beyond her grave. As Laertes says in Hamlet at his sister’s grave, “may flights of angels guide you to your rest.” Her words will also be her immortality.