Today’s news is overwhelming, and it is hitting me harder than I would have expected: Maya Angelou is dead at the age of 86.
Fortunately, it seems, she went quickly from some complication of a lingering heart condition. Her agent Helen Brann offered ABCNews this insight: “She’d been very frail and had heart problems, but she was going strong . . . Her spirit was indomitable.”
It is heartening to hear that she did not experience loss of awareness and focus in her last days. Her wit, charm, creativity, humanity, humor, grace—they all stayed with her until the end. And those traits will stay with us through her work and words. As she noted, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Well, Maya Angelou made me feel alive, grateful, appreciative, hopeful. What a great lady! She will be missed.
I am torn about how to commemorate her life, our loss. But I decided I am not going to review her life and works in this blog. I have done that before. And many news sources are sharing accounts of her life today. Instead, I want to be comforted by her words and ideas. I plan to reread I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings over the next several days. But here is Maya Angelou reading her poem “Phenomenal Woman.” It is one of my favorites. And, oh, what a great smile!
She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, but she was mostly raised in Stamps, Arkansas by her grandmother. From her grandmother, Maya learned spirituality, and the importance of family, faith, and the celebration of life. Living in the rural south, she also experienced racial discrimination and being raped at the age of seven by her mother’s boyfriend. Fortunately, she overcame the horrors of her past and has become a national treasure, sharing her insights and life lessons through her work and art.
Angelou’s official website provides details about her and lavels her “a global renaissance woman.” A Biography Website provides a short video, giving a quick review of her life and work. The specifics of Angelou’s life are impressive, but even the highlights help show the full range of all she has done. During WWII, she moved to San Francisco, where she won a scholarship to study dance and acting. She also worked at a range of jobs, including being the first black female cable car conductor. Her son Guy was born in 1944. From the mid-1950s on, she was an actor, dancer, writer and civil rights activist. In the 1960s, she traveled extensively and became more involved with the civil rights movement back in the United States.
She wrote her most popular work, the first of several memoirs, in 1970: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This was the work that introduced me to this impressive woman. But her talents do not stop there. Her creativity continues to be expressed through acting, writing, directing, and lecturing. In 1971, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die. Since 1982, she has held the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Angelou mentions accepting this appointment during the following interview on the Merv Griffin Show in 1982.
In 1993, she composed and recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s inauguration; she was the first poet to be invited to read at this event since Robert Frost read at JFK’s inauguration in 1961. The poem’s themes focus on change, inclusion and responsibility. In 2000, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts and in 2008 the Lincoln Medal. Angelou continues to write and to present lectures across the country. She has become a more familiar face to many because of her friendship with Oprah Winfrey, which included several visits on Oprah’s show. Oprah praises Angelou as a friend and mentor, a role Angelou plays informally for the country through her writings and insights about life. In the following video, Oprah shares one of the lessons Angelou shared with her that Oprah now shares regularly with others: “When you know better, you do better.”
“Phenomenal Woman” is my favorite poem of those written by Maya Angelou. It was first published in 1978 along with the poem “Still I Rise.” However, they were also included in a book that was published in 1995: Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women. This poem shows her strength, her spirit, her confidence, even if she does not fit society’s norms. Her strength and confidence, which are so very justified, can give us all hope for ourselves and society. I wish Maya Angelou, a truly phenomenal woman, a great birthday today as she continues to voice confidence and celebration for all of us. Her website is right when it states, “Dr. Angelou’s words and actions continue to stir our souls, energize our bodies, liberate our minds, and heal our hearts.”
The following video gives a musical version of “Phenomenal Woman,” some tidbits about her life, and at the end a reading of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou herself. “Phenomenal Woman” as well as a few other quotes are presented after the video.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
SOME WORDS OF WISDOM FROM MAYA ANGELOU
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.
I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.
My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.
It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.
Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.
Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.
Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.
If you don’t like something, change. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.