On Wednesday 28 May 2014 a national treasure, celebrated teacher, author, poet, director, actress, playwright and inspirational figure to millions, was soundly kissed a final goodnight to a new life of ‘sweet dreams’.
I was deeply moved by the passing of Dr Maya Angelou but not saddened, because I believed she is one of the few rarities who left Earth with a phenomenal legacy; having accomplished the very mission and purpose God ordained her for. I can imagine that she spent her final hours in complete contentment, satisfied by the lives she had changed, minds she had elevated, hearts she had encouraged, spirits she had lifted and dreams she had delivered. Three grammy’s, fluent in six languages and the second poet in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. Legacy.
Once upon a time, there was a 14-year-old girl who had always been inspired and enthusiastic for the power of words and writing, so one day she walked into WHSmith and picked up‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, a story of Dr Maya’s personal trials and survival. As this 14-year-old school girl read about Maya being a child of the depression growing up in the segregated south, her survival of childhood rape, giving birth as a teenager, and at one time being a prostitute, she fell in love with the transparent passion behind the pen. Little did Maya know, she encouraged this young school girl to pick up her own pen and as a result at age 16 she self-published her first book entitled ‘Snow Black, the Seven Rastas & Other Short Stories’ .That school girl was me. I only wish I got the chance to give her the book in person and let her know in the impact she had in my life.
Call me ‘over-ambitious’ but I always believed I would interview Dr Maya for an‘Inspirational Women’feature on Skool Girl Online one day. So today is the day I guess. If I did do an interview with ‘Marguerite Annie Johnson’, I think it would go a little something like this…
“I was born on April 4th, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri and was raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. I survived a tough childhood. There was a lot of brutality and racial discrimination, but in spite of this I absorbed an unshakable faith and the values of family, community, and culture. Growing up as a teenager I had a passion for the arts and was privileged to win a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. I was 14-years-old when I dropped out of school and ran away to look for my father whilst living rough in Los Angeles and Mexico for quite some time. Later on I returned to San Francisco and decided to finish high school. A few weeks after graduation, aged 17, I was expecting my son, Guy. As a first time, young and single mother there was no doubt I was scared, but I had another life to think about now and this was much more important. I was determined to do the best I could do for Guy, and supported the both of us by working as a waitress and cook. My love for the arts never died, it had just taken a detour for a while, but I always believed that one day my passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry would soon take center stage and make an incredible impact around the world.”
Ambitions and achievements
“In my early 20’s I got married to a man called Anastasios (Tosh)Angelopulos, he was a former sailor and aspiring musician. During this time, I trained as a dancer with Martha Graham and worked as a nightclub singer. In the 1950’s I toured Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess, recorded a calypso album and appeared in the off-Broadway show and film Calypso Heat Wave. I was seeing my creativity develop to higher heights and it was exciting! People like John Oliver Killens and James Baldwin also encouraged me to join the Harlem Writers Guild. I started to take my creative work seriously.
I always wanted to travel, so in 1961 I moved to Cairo, Egypt and worked as the Editor of the English Language Weekly for The Arab Observer. The following year I found myself in Ghana teaching at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, working as Feature Editor for The African Review as well as writing for The Ghanaian Times. The longer I worked abroad, my love for words and language grew more and more, I learned how to speak French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti – the West African language. Whilst in Ghana I met Malcolm X, let me tell you this man has an incredible sense of humour! He is one of the most courageous people I have ever known and he was a loving person who really loved black people. In 1964, Malcolm and I returned to America to build his new organisation of African American Unity, but this dissolved and some of you may already know why, but I will let you know in more details in the next section. Seven years later, in 1970, I began working on my memoir, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, I had the guidance of my good friend, James Baldwin who was also a novelist. Who knew that it would go on to become an international success? I was humbled. From here I guess the creativity just kept spilling out of me like a waterfall, I then went on to write the screenplay ‘Georgia, Georgia’in 1972. I was honoured to be the first African American woman ever to be filmed and can only thank God for being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
One of my favourite moments was when I recited my poem ‘On the Pulse of Morning’for my dear friend Bill Clinton, for his presidential inauguration in Washington. That was January 1993, I remember that day so clearly in my head, and the words…‘Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
Ah! It was like music to my ears, a moment I will never forget. I could go on and on about my successes, but I’m sure you will read everything else in my biography, right? I like to talk a lot as you can tell already (*She laughs*).
“In 1970, I began working on my memoir, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, I had the guidance of my good friend, James Baldwin who was also a novelist. Who knew that it would go on to become an international success? I was humbled.”
Test and trials
“Going back to me and Malcolm, when we arrived back in the states, he was assassinated. This broke my heart. Malcolm was a faithful man, and I knew that he would want the legacy to continue. Soon after, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked me to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1968, I was left devastated once again when he was also assassinated on my 40th birthday. I had seen a lot of devastation in my time, even from my early days of childhood. When I said I survived a tough childhood, I really meant it. In my book ‘The Caged Bird’I speak about my experience of being raped at the age of seven by my mother’s boyfriend, I also speak about how much responsible I felt for his murder at the time too. For five years I stopped speaking but that was broken the day I was encouraged to read works by black authors such as Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and was later persuaded by Bertha Flowers, to read aloud from the works of Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare and various poets. It was at this moment I was reunited with my undying love and appreciation of words.”
“Many people ask ‘Maya after 10 volumes of poetry, composed songs, musicals, films, writing scripts, plays, TV programmes, books, winning awards, what’s next?’Next is legacy. Just like the people who were before me, there is the next generation up and coming behind me who I must prepare the way for. I am here and I have a responsibility for the children. I have a responsibility to let them know that they must take their history and learn from it, not to repeat it but to learn and grow. I have a responsibility to teach them humility, not modesty, modesty is dangerous, and life will slam a modest person against a wall. For the future I hope to never stop talking, even through my actions, I hope that they speak as loud as the greatest sounding symphony.”
#SkoolQuote ‘I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a (you know *what*). You’ve got to go out and kick ass.’ Rest in peace Dr Maya Angelou
(Cover photo and featured image via tumblr)