Remembering Maya Angelou
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Maya Angelou lent grace even to Twitter.
“Listen to yourself,” the 86-year-old author and poet tapped out late last week, “and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
It would be the last of her 255 tweets — to nearly 400,000 followers — and among the last public pronouncements from an American treasure. Angelou died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, closing an extraordinary life that began in Missouri and yielded what President Obama described as “one of the brightest lights of our time.”
Most acclaimed for her seven autobiographical volumes and perhaps best loved for the poetry that brought her to the podium at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Angelou accumulated Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominations, three Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and, in 2011 the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She once worked as a streetcar conductor and a restaurant cook, once was a madam and a prostitute, once danced in nightclubs and sang calypso. Her experiences shaped her and her writing, and her willingness to write about even the most ugly and painful of them — including a childhood rape — broke new ground for African American women.
It also struck some nerves. Angelou’s first and most praised autobiography, the best-selling I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969 and covered her birth in St. Louis, the rape, and nearly five subsequent years in which she didn’t speak in the wake of the rapist’s murder. In identifying him, she later explained, she felt she had killed him.
But the subject matter, which also included racism and homosexuality, and the volume’s sometimes-raw language made it a banned-book target. Caged Bird ranked sixth on the American Library Association’s lists of top 100 banned and challenged books of the decade from 2000-2009, just behind Of Mice and Men. A decade earlier, it ranked third.
Angelou kept good company. Steinbeck. Twain. Salinger. Toni Morrison.
She ruffled a different set of feathers a little more than 12 years ago, when she partnered with Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards on a line of greeting cards and other household items ranging from bookends and wall hangings to pillows and mugs. Leading poets sniffed their displeasure at the supposed lower-brow platform.
Angelou told USA TODAY that she found it “challenging and daring,” recalling one struggle to pare five pages of writing down to a single sentence: "The wise woman wishes to be no one's enemy, the wise woman refuses to be anyone's victim.”
She told the newspaper, “When I finally got it just to those two lines, I came into the dining room and poured myself a glass of red wine!”
Throughout her career, a vast majority celebrated her work with her. Angelou taught. She provoked. She inspired.
“Still I Rise,” the title piece of her third volume of poetry — published in 1978 — speaks eloquently to her life’s journey:
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.