Maya Angelou, Phenomenal Woman, Excellent Human Being, 1928-2014
Maya Angelou died Tuesday at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, following a long illness. She leaves behind a list of accomplishments that threatened to overwhelm headlines: poet, essayist, actress, memoirist, historian, educator, civil rights advocate, Poet Laureate, excellent human being, take your pick. The first of her many memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a true modern classic, the story of her youth in the Jim Crow South, of her being silenced by sexual violence, and of her rediscovery of language.
Already a favorite of excessively literate types, Angelou became even better known for her poem “On the Pulse Of Morning,” delivered at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993:
(Video courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library)
And as it happens, even Angelou’s final tweet manages to bring beauty to a medium that usually is just ranting:
And, oh, those poems! “Phenomenal Woman” was the right poem for the right time, which is to say, 1978 and every single day since:
There are too many wonderful Maya Angelou stories floating around the internet to even attempt to pin them down. There’s this, from the NPR obit, on her performances with the Alvin Ailey troupe in the 1950s:
“I was known as Miss Calypso, and when I’d forget the lyric, I would tell the audience, ‘I seem to have forgotten the lyric.’ Now I will dance. And I would move around a bit,” she recalled with a laugh during a 2008 interview with NPR.
There’s Barack Obama’s tribute to her when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011:
As a girl, Marguerite Ann Johnson endured trauma and abuse that actually led her to stop speaking. But as a performer, and ultimately a writer, a poet, Maya Angelou found her voice. It’s a voice that’s spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.
By holding on, even amid cruelty and loss, and then expanding to a sense of compassion, an ability to love — by holding on to her humanity — she has inspired countless others who have known injustice and misfortune in their own lives. I won’t try to say it better than Maya Angelou herself, who wrote that:
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
For god’s sake, there’s Tracy Morgan on SNL, reading “Maya Angelou’s Hallmark Cards”:
Here’s how much of an optimist Angelou was about the redeemability of human nature: In 1991, she wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times that almost makes you wonder whether things could have been different:
Because Clarence Thomas
has been poor, has been nearly suffocated
by the acrid odor of racial discrimination, is
intelligent, well trained, black and young enough to be won over
again, I support him.
That’s OK; she was a poet, not a pundit.
There’s this lovely clip from 1982, when she visited her home town of Stamps, Arkansas, with Bill Moyers:
We realize this has been a scramble of snippets; you should probably go read the NYT obit for the systematic overview… and there’s the endless books and essays and poems and readings — go spend some time with Maya Angelou if you need to refresh your ability to think well of human beings.
She worked well with Muppets, too: