The death of Maya Angelou Wednesday, at the age of 86, brought a tear to the eyes of poetry fans and fighters for equality everywhere. Her remarkable life, as outlined through her groundbreaking autobiographical works and poetry, will never be forgotten. Although Angelou has died, her spirit, her ability to provide a voice to the voiceless, and her continuous fight for equality will live on forever in the hearts and minds of people still fighting that very same fight today. It is that very same spirit and fight that Angelou embodied that is needed now more than ever.
In her eight decades of life, Maya Angelou suffered a great deal of loss and hardships. After her mother was divorced, she and her brother were forced to live with her grandmother amidst the racially-fueled hatred of Arkansas during the time of Jim Crow laws. At just seven years of age, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and in a bout of retribution, her uncles then killed the man. Feeling as if she was to blame for his death, Angelou became mute for five years. At the age of seventeen and into early adulthood, she was a single mother, working at a strip club, running a brothel and was already married and divorced.
After all of these early trials and tribulations, Angelou could have given up. Luckily for people who faced and are still facing the same difficulties she had growing up, she did not.
Angelou went on to let her creative side loose and began singing at the Purple Onion cabaret in San Francisco. She even toured Europe for a bit of time in the mid-1950’s, but it was her experiences in the 1960’s that would have Angelou explode on the scene in 1970. In the early 60’s, while relocating and living in Ghana, Angelou met and decided to work for the charismatic Malcolm-X. After Malcolm’s assassination, she befriended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin, two of the most prominent names in black history. After the death of Dr. King Jr., it was Baldwin who initiated a conversation between the mourning Angelou and an editor for Random House.
Through these collective experiences, along with her adversity, resiliency and willingness to fight that she truly found her voice. After her conversation with the Random House editor, her breakthrough memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was distributed in 1970. The authenticity and sheer writing talent displayed by Angelou in this memoir, outlining her life growing up in the Jim Crow South up to the time of her son’s birth, is what had people everywhere flocking to her work. The message still resonates today.
In states, cities, and small towns everywhere, many people today are still facing similar battles that Angelou had faced so long ago. In a time where divorce and single parenthood still lives, along with the existence of voter suppression, anti-gay and lesbian and anti-women’s rights laws are still prevalent and are being challenged, people everywhere can find irrepressible strength through Maya Angelou’s works and in her spirit.
In Angelou’s poem On the Pulse of Morning, read at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, she beautifully outlines the contrasting elements that make up this nation’s history and this nation’s ability to see through these differences in order to come together. It is, as Maya Angelou has said, “our differences” that can help “make us stronger.” The acceptance of differences is what can help “break down the walls (of disparity) that we set between ourselves.” It is this optimism and hope for a better world that can bring this nation together again in an attempt to help leave this nation with a long-lasting tradition of acceptance and tolerance, rather than hatred and inequality for the future.
Commentary by Ryne Vyles