WHEN FAMED POET, MAYA ANGELOU, DIED YESTERDAY, it’s likely that few knew just what a remarkable life she led. It would be like watching a major Hollywood movie. For those of us who have written poetry for years she was a seminal influence because of her ability to speak about her personal life in ways that somehow transcended it.
We know about the good stuff – over 30 honourary degrees, awards by the dozens, producer of plays, movies, and television programs, a civil rights advocate who worked with Martin Luther King Jr., a popular professor and a famed orator.
But then there were her shadow years. At the age of eight she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She was close to her brother and told him of the experience. He told others who eventually succeeded in getting the man arrested. Later the man was murdered, likely by her family.
And then the incredible happened: Maya became mute for five years. She would later confess that, “I thought my voice killed him; I killed that man because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.” It was an outlook that conveyed her sensitivity of soul.
Yet in her silence she grew in understanding and in compassion. She developed a phenomenal memory, grew in her vast love for books and literature, and in the ability to listen to others. Somehow, despite all her pain, she was growing more objective, as the world around her caught her imagination and her interest.
Sadly, life itself wasn’t so cooperative. She moved to California, becoming the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. But then she became pregnant and had a son. With little job training or advanced education, this single mother fell into what she later termed, “the slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime.” She became a prostitute, managed a bordello, and worked in a restaurant.
And yet despite it all the larger world beckoned, as it always did. She read Shakespeare, Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, and James Johnson. She refused to permit herself to become lost in a woman’s plight, the poverty cycle, or a self-made hell. In the end her larger life saved her, and in so doing it made her a powerful force to people like me, and millions of others, because she was so redemptively human.
Read about the rest of her life, if you can. It is equally as amazing and well laid out in her seven autobiographies. She was, and is, a woman for the ages.
Many groups attempted to claim her during her long life, but she refused to bracketed by anger or pity. To her the great thing was to enter the larger stream of humankind and become more deeply conscious of the potential and injustices of life. As she said once in speaking to a women’s conference: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Or, as she said so characteristically on her 70th birthday: “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.” In this was her secret: the ability to transcend suffering in service of the greater good.
We didn’t just lose a terrific poet, writer, and advocate yesterday, but a true force of nature. She saw beyond the suffering, the victimization, the injustices, and put the broader cause of humanity back into individual pain and experience. By the very act of her life she taught us that it is not always natural to be reduced in compassion, imagination, or outlook, through what we have suffered. Not for her the diminished life, and she showed it was possible for us, too.
In her five years of self-imposed silence she picked up the world and turned it over in her fingers and in her mind. An inner voice was developing so poignantly that when it went public and captured people like me, it reminded us that, regardless of our personal travails, the human family is still our natural home, our redemption, and our ultimate cause. Like Romeo Dallaire, who announced his retirement from the Senate on the same day she passed away, Maya Angelou came through her own dark tunnel, not merely into the light of personal meaning, but of universal hope.