published in The Philippine Online Chronicles, Wednesday, 11 June 2014
read Part 1
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, she changed her name into “Maya Angelou” not with the intent of becoming famous as a writer but as a dancer/singer/actress/performer. As a young woman, she started out as an exotic dancer before landing a role in a production of the opera “Porgy and Bess” that toured Europe in 1954. She acted in the 1955 movie “How to Make An American Quilt”. She recorded her first album, “Miss Calypso”, in 1957 and appeared in the 1977 TV series “Roots”. A self-professed “reluctant actor”, she eventually got a nomination in the 1973 Tony Awards for her role in “Look Away”.
No doubt about it, Maya Angelou was the quintessential total performer and was not just a typical jack of all trades. She excelled in every craft she ventured in and performed with every bit of pain and passion in her veins. Certainly, while some of her critics said that her works were sometimes weak as text, they too had to admit that the strength of her writings were more intensely felt when she performed them.
Her prose and poetry are aptly rooted in the African-American oral tradition of the “spoken word” that is based mainly on spiritualism, soul and an innate rhythmic flow of words. In “Letter to My Daughter”, her third book of essays, she managed to transform 28 short essays into a unified mesh of poetry, melody and banter: “I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“Nothing will work unless you do.”
Throughout her life, Maya Angelou’s fervor never waned. Her later years she devoted to being a “teacher who writes”. She pursued a tedious lecture circuit and taught a variety of courses, including ethics, science, theatre, writing, philosophy and civil rights. Though she never earned a degree, she was regarded as “Dr. Angelou” by the academe and was granted over 50 honorary degrees. She was a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University where she taught her last course in 2011. She was planning to return to teaching at Wake Forest when she died.
Maya Angelou inspired many not merely for her sheer celebrity but because she was a warrior for justice, equality and dignity of peoples. Her unapologetic life, style and spirit opened the minds and hearts of many on issues that were otherwise considered an anathema upon her very existence as an African American woman who refused to conform to dictates of society.
She was hailed as “the Black woman’s poet laureate”, and she was much more. She tried to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud, and still she succeeded in becoming phenomenally much, much more. ###