published in The Philippine Online Chronicles, Monday, 9 June 2014
When she was eight years old, Maya Angelou lost her voice. And after five years of silence, she rose to become one of the most outspoken, most proliferate and most inspiring artists of contemporary times.
At the time of her death on May 28, 2014, at 86 years old, Maya Angelou had written seven autobiographies, three books of essays and countless pieces of poetry and had been acclaimed for numerous plays, movies, television shows, music, performance art and academic lectures and talks that she wrote, acted or performed in and delivered in a span of over 50 years.
To know of her life places one in awe of her courage in the face of suffering and tribulations, and in comprehension of what made her the phenomenal woman that she was.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
In “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, Maya Angelou’s first, and most internationally acclaimed, in a series of autobiographies, she spoke of her childhood, her dysfunctional family, growing up and early adulthood experiences and the traumatic rape by her mother’s boyfriend when she was a child of eight. Her rapist was subsequently murdered by her uncles, shocking her into self-imposed silence. “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…”
And kill she did, with poetry, performance and prose. It was during this period of muteness that Maya Angelou developed her extraordinary attention to detail and her love for literature. In Caged Bird, she presented how books and literature became her refuge as she fought to survive her trauma. Her peculiar writing routine – getting up at five in the morning, checking into a hotel room, instructing the staff to remove all pictures on the walls, writing on legal pads while lying in bed with nothing but a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire with, the Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus, and leaving before evening – has been described by critics as “old” and “outdated” but she attested that she went through the process each and every time to “enchant” herself, to “relive the agony, the anguish” to be able to “tell the human truth”, and all her stories untold. Her moment of enchantment, she said, was for her to remember and recreate every poignant detail of her experiences until she found respite, euphoria even, in “telling the truth.”
Her exploration of topics such as rape, discrimination and growing up, as Nina Simone put it, “young, gifted and black”, was a common theme in Maya Angelou’s works of autobiographical fiction. “Rape” in Caged Bird, for instance, was depicted not just a personal harrowing experience but as a symbolism for the grief and anguish of a young girl going through issues of identity, inferiority complex, racism, discrimination, poverty and inequity.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Maya Angelou was many and every facet an artist but her influence sprung from being a civil rights activist, being one of the first Black women to have published an autobiography that challenged racism, sought independence and equality, and celebrated Black dignity, culture and motherhood.
She was inspired to join the Civil Rights Movement after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak for the first time in 1960. She actively organized benefits for his cause until he later appointed her Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1965, she was invited by Malcolm X to work for him, but he was assassinated just when she was able to do so. Later, in 1968, King instructed her to organize a demonstration but he too was assassinated on her birthday. She stopped celebrating her birthday since and sent flowers for 30 years to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, until the latter’s death in 2006.
Two of Maya Angelou’s most iconic and renowned poems are protest poems as well as strong personal political testaments in their distinct qualities. “And Still I Rise”, published in 1978, is a heroic scream of defiance against racial discrimination, inequality and conformity: “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…” The piece was recited by the late Nelson Mandela in his 1994 presidential inauguration.
In 1993, Maya Angelou was asked by then US Pres. Bill Clinton to write a poem for his inauguration, making her the first poet since Robert Frost to deliver a poem in a presidential inaugural. “On the Pulse of Morning” further sealed her place as one of the most influential African-American poets of her time: “History, despite its wrenching pain,/Cannot be unlived,/And if faced with courage,/Need not be lived again./Lift your eyes upon/The day breaking for you./Give birth again/To the dream.” The recording of the poem won a Grammy Award and became an anthem for “marginalized” America.
(to be continued)