The power of the word is strong. Very strong. It’s not for nothing many a regime has resorted to book burnings and according to mythology vampires are warded off with a book considered holy. I wonder how many actually understand this power of words. Maya Angelou, the writer, poet, activist and just-all-around amazing human being, who passed over yesterday, understood this power and wielded it like a magic wand.
Ms. Angelou didn´t grow into a legend ´just´ because of her writing. She was and remains a titan due to her extraordinary life, her actions and her attitude. She was a true professional in the art of self-realisation or as author Alice Walker put it: “she was, among other things, such an artist, that she could not only create worlds on paper, or in a listener’s imagination, but she also managed, over and over again in her long life, to create and recreate herself”.
She was a child of the depression, born and raised in the segregated South of the United States. She was raped at the age of 7, lived rough on the streets of San Francisco at the age of 14 and became a single mum at the age of 17. Despite all this early-life hardship she later travelled the world in a time when few did and became an influential writer, poet, spoken-word artist, performer, director and activist. Besides these vocations she had a 1001 other jobs ranging from burger flipper, restaurant chef, and singer to dancer- she trained with legend Martha Graham-, newspaper editor and university lecturer. She worked closely with the legends of the civil rights movement Malcom X and Martin Luther King, the latter having been assassinated on her 40th birthday, which left her and a great part of the nation devastated. She started writing about her life after Dr. King’s assignation and published the first instalment of a series of autobiographies I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. She wrote subsequent instalments throughout the 70s and 80s recording her colourful life and experiences. Her last two autobiographical works A Song Flung Up to Heaven and Mom & Me & Mom were published in 2002 and 2013 respectively.
She was a tall and impressive personality with a deep voice and a true adventurer. What I find so inspiring besides her words and intellect is that she didn´t seem to care much for convention, especially in a time when the vast majority of people did. She gave birth at the age of 17 and was in no mood to marry the father. She married and divorced twice in a time when people ´didn´t do divorce´. She lived and worked in Cairo, Egypt and Accra, Ghana, travelled through Europe with a troupe performing the opera Porgy and Bess, she worked as the first black female street conductor in San Francisco and was an engaging activist for equality and peace. She was the first black woman to produce a screenplay that was developed into a film. She received presidential approval and wider international recognition when she wrote and delivered a poem for Bill Clinton´s inauguration as the 42nd president of the US in 1993.
Regardless- or perhaps because- of her background and the hardship she endured, especially in her early life, she did her shit. She did a lot of it and she did it very well, inspiring millions across the globe with messages that transcend race, gender, age or creed.
Dr. Angelou, thank you so much for the inspiration that is your work and your life. The messages will live on and may all be well in the Summer Land.
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
top images: achievement.org