By Niyi Osundare
She enriched our world with her astounding array of talents and accomplishments: she was a singer, dancer, composer, producer, actress, journalist, teacher, motivational speaker, writer, and civil rights activist. Yet, that world, given the time, place, and circumstance of her birth, gave her little chance to demonstrate those talents, and even less possibility for carrying them to ultimate fulfillment.
For she was born Black and female in American South at a time when both designations were nothing short of double jeopardy. Life for Black people in Jim Crow South was hard, brutish, almost forbidding, but the proverbial reality of America as a land of dreams and possibilities enabled her to make lemonade with the lemon sold to her by a society still trying to grapple with the searing contradictions between the lofty democratic ideals enshrined in its constitution and the grave inequities meted out to its racial and gender underclass.
Maya Angelou was a victim of the American nightmare and shining example of its dream. Her entire life provided a lesson in the act of snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat. In an interview with African American critic Claudia Tate a couple of years ago, Angelou declared: “All my work is meant to say ‘You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated’” (See The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Edition, p. 2155).
This is the empowering credo of a woman who was raped when she was eight years old and plunged into trauma-induced silence for many years thereafter; then became a teenage mother one month after graduating from high school at 16. This is the rousing lesson of a woman who rose from acute obscurity to global acclaim; a woman once ‘dumbed’ by unspeakable adversity but who rose to develop a voice strong and eloquent enough to qualify her as the chosen poet at President Clinton’s inauguration on January 21, 1993, thus becoming the first African American and the first woman to be so recognized and honored.
To Maya Angelou, drawbacks and adversities are, most times, the building blocks of the house of glory; for life without its vicissitudes is like Christianity without the Cross. She has so much to say because her own life is a compendium of tellable stories. This is why she is most widely known for her autobiograhies, the two famous of which are I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) which became an instant best-seller and literally launched her career as a writer and global voice; and All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1984), an engaging account of her travel to Ghana, and the many ways her Africa journey helped her self-definition as an African American by deepening her understanding of the African condition beyond the silences, half-truths, and blatant lies in the history books.
An authentic apprehension of history and its poignant impact on the present, a touching narrative of the battles of life; the archaeology of adversity and its delicate relationship to eventual triumph, the never-say-die spirit and desirability of the proverbial pie in the sky; the necessity of love and the possibility of hope; the redemptive functions of art and culture; a spirituality older, deeper, and much wider than the troubling superficialities of the workaday world; a ceaseless insistence on lasting values: these are the recurrent themes of Maya Angelou’s works.
These are the principles, which ruled her life. This is why, bolstered by uncommon courage and conviction, she was able to say this to a world that has been largely unkind to her race and gender:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise
Yes, the incredible Maya has picked up the horsetail and danced to the other side of the Great River. But she has left us her lyrical verse and soulful music, her imperishable stories, her electric stage presence, her sweet (and sour) voice, the epigrammatic force in her moral injunction:
When you learn, teach
When you get, give
Said the iconic persona in Angelou’s ‘Our Grandmothers’: ‘I have a certain way of being in this world’. Maya Angelou’s 86 years on earth are a telling testimony to that declaration. The world has lost a truly phenomenal woman. How so grateful we are that she came our way and touched our lives with the music of her soul and the gravitas of her grace.
Professor Niyi Osundare, accomplished poet, essayist, and literary critic, teaches at the University of New Orleans in the United States.