When the news of Maya Angelou’s death broke, I was genuinely stunned for a few moments. I could feel the goosebumps rise over my skin as I scrolled through my twitter feed hoping that this was an ill-humored hoax; unfortunately, it wasn’t.
It shouldn’t be all that shocking as Angelou was 86 years old, but it was. She had the kind of luminosity you never thought would be extinguished. She seemed to exist on a different plane of reality as the rest of us. She seemed to transcend.
There’s always this reaction when someone legendary dies and that’s exactly what Maya Angelou was — a legend. Not only was she a magnificent writer, feminist, and activist, she was a remarkable person. With thirty honorary degrees from universities and dozens of awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dr. Maya Angelou’s legacy is unparalleled.
Over the course of her life, Angelou wrote seven memoirs. Her first and most well-known, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings (1969), is a coming-of-age novel that explores race, trauma, rape, family, and language. Angelou managed to change the way memoirs were read and written with her first autobiography. She chronicled a life that had been silenced (by herself and the world) for so long; a life that had been ripped apart at the hands of others; a life that she had reconstructed through her own words. This book is the physical embodiment of the idea that literature and language can heal.
Her most-recent and last memoir Mom & Me & Mom (2013) explores her tumultuous relationship with her mother, Vivian. The book provides an overview of Angelou’s life where she revisits anecdotes from other books and allows her mother to finally have a presence (other than a notable absence) in her written life. For a woman who often wrote about motherhood, it would seem appropriate that her last memoir would place her between “Mom” and “Mom.”
Angelou was also an accomplished poet who published more than a dozen collections of poetry. One of her most well-known poems, “Still I Rise,” was chosen by Nelson Mandela as his inauguration poem in 1994. The poem is about being black, and a woman, and rising up again and again against all odds and obstables — both manmade and natural. While I can’t remember the first time I read “Still I Rise,” I remember the reaction I had when I read the lines:
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
God, someone who can create poetry from the intersection of womanhood, race, and sexuality is a woman after my own heart. And that’s exactly what Maya Angelou was.
Her writing was (and is) important for its brazen honesty, social slant, and unflinching humanity. She was a woman who could find joy despite having known true sorrow and loss. She was a woman who was humble and blunt about the craft of writing. She was a woman who struggled and felt (and wrote) more deeply because of it.
Her loss is a blow to not only the literary world, but the world in general.
Angelou writes in the second stanza of “Still I Rise,” does my sassiness upset you?
And, no, it doesn’t. What’s upsetting is that we won’t be privy to your sassiness anymore, Ms. Angelou. We are humbled to have heard your song, and I know we will be listening for its echoes for many years to come.