You couldn’t help but gasp when you first heard the news this morning, then lower your head in a silent prayer.
The caged bird finally is free.
Dr. Maya Angelou is now one with the ancestors after 86 glorious, tumultuous, awe-inspiring years among us mere mortals. From her magnificent stride and resonant voice to her dignified gestures and unmistakable grace, she lived and worked among the downtrodden and feted alike, almost as if she were a visiting goddess coming to observe humanity and offer it counsel.
Nowhere in her regal six-foot bearing was any hint of a girl so victimized that she crawled into a cocoon of her own making, one sealed with a self-imposed six-year silence. When she found her healing, she birthed herself anew.
Hers was the story of overcoming adversity and charting her own path to freedom, one that made her so internationally beloved and so thoroughly American. More precisely, thoroughly African American, because, like the griots of her heritage, she could intertwine universal lessons through the experience of a people deemed less than, then hailed as equal to, if not greater than, those who would seek to oppress them.
The human spirit, she showed us, would always soar. We would always rise, just like the protagonist in her emblematic poem, “Still I Rise.” She urged us to prevail, to be comfortable in ourselves, just as she learned to be in herself, in skin that had been stretched, scarred and bronzed, and then ultimately praised and cherished in life.
After all, hers was one that took her from rural poverty in Arkansas, across the African diaspora, to floodlit stages in New York and Hollywood, to living rooms throughout the United States and the world, to guest lists at A-list universities and the White House.
Dancer. Streetcar conductor. Singer. Mother. Editor. Globetrotter. Civil rights warrior. Activist. Actor. Counselor. Professor. Poet. Her portfolio career saw her seize success in any number of fields. Yet, her messages of resilience, as lucidly and honestly detailed in I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, that often draws in admirers first.
Inspiration certainly follows, for she was the embodiment of wisdom and poise.
In her passing, America has lost a revered one, its charming and sagacious grandmother. She was officially so adopted on the frigid January day she recited “On the Pulse of Morning” in honor of then-incoming President Bill Clinton.
Her nation, which once condoned second-class citizenship for her and all who shared her color and ancestry, sat rapt, like much of the world, while her melodious voice wove a human tale of journey, obstacles, redemption and triumph through the ages and the continents. As only the second poet asked to offer such an inaugural address in the modern era—and the first African-American and first woman—legions swelled with pride when she closed with a verse that spoke to the hope that beat in their chests:
. . . Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Dr. Maya Angelou captured us that day, embraced us fully. We hugged her back, gladly. Through lessons of her own struggles and pain, she helped to make us feel and be whole. And she gave us these gifts freely. And often.
“During her lifetime, she left an indelible mark on American society,” Mayor Michael A. Nutter remarked Wednesday. “Whether you are a poetry fan or a particular admirer of African-American literature, Maya Angelou spoke to so many people through her work.”
And her words are and will be, everlasting. Like the phenomenal woman who gave them to us.
Nia Ngina Meeks is a Philadelphia-based writer. Follow her on Twitter at @nmpurpose.
Calendar: December 17-24
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PW's Holiday Guide 2014