Upon hearing the news of literary legend and civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s death on the morning of May 28, I, like most of the world, fell silent in a state of disbelief. It felt unreal that this female powerhouse of a literary voice was suddenly gone.
“Why on earth should this be happening now?” I thought.
To recover from the shock of her death, I decided to use my mourning productively and research the life of the poet who had acted as a beacon for me. I found she was as complex as her work suggests.
Angelou lived many different lives. She was a teacher, actress, fry-cook, nightclub singer, dancer, radio personality, performer and even, briefly, a stripper. She authored more than 30 titles, including her signature 1969 autobiographical work of art, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Without even a high school degree, and as a survivor of racism, rape and teen pregnancy, Angelou went on to become the recipient of more than 30 honorary degrees. In 1993, she became the second poet in history to read at a presidential inauguration with her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for former President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address.
Angelou had been all of these things. But even more so, as the first African-American woman to write a Pulitzer-nominated film script, she accomplished milestones for black women everywhere and acted as a brilliant voice for us all – myself included.
I was introduced to Angelou at a young age with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a tale of her childhood as a daughter of the South, growing up in a time I don’t believe any black person of my generation has ever experienced or could possibly be conditioned to. I followed her growth into a young adult, experiencing many devastating hurdles and blows with her along the way. This was one of her better-known works, a book she wrote to show “you can win.”
Touching upon her tale left a lasting impact on my young mind, as I had not yet come across a black female writer who was honest, raw and unapologetic about the abuse she had suffered at such an early age. Angelou refused to allow her hardships and downfalls to define her. Instead, she took them as a journey that only contributed to her strength as a human being.
It wasn’t just the rawness of her narrative but the experiences she encountered themselves that spoke to me as young black woman growing up. I felt touched upon reading Angelou’s account of abuse from her mother’s boyfriend, because at the time I was also experiencing abuse as a young child. It wouldn’t end until after I was taken out of my parents’ care when I was 15 years old.
Reading her account of what had occurred and how she had struggled after the incident, but had not been broken by it, gave me hope. This was reinforced by the fact that Angelou continued to write about other experiences in her life instead of fixating on her abuse.
It was her tenacity and voice that I have always remembered and admired as I myself began to pursue writing.
I believe we are all faced with our own struggles, each and every one of us. Maybe these struggles differ according to our race, gender or human identity. But each of us experiences a challenge.
For me, the challenge was overcoming the abuse that I very well could have allowed to define my life, but have not, because I realize others before me, like Angelou, did not. Instead, they chose to carry on and share their experiences with others, using their voice as a universal narrative. In this way, they turned their negative pasts into positively enriching stories that touched the lives of others.
Angelou’s voice will always be a constant reminder and a takeaway for my life, not only as a young black female writer, but also as a human being. Her work taught me that the negative actions or beliefs of others can only be allowed to run so deep into our character and that, ultimately, only we can give them that power.
I will always celebrate Angelou as the triumph of the human spirit, because despite the fact she grew up while racism reached its highest point, she never allowed it to limit her talents or voice.
Angelou’s presence will always be felt here and remain here forever. Just visit Broad and Christian Streets and you’ll find a bright blue and orange mural, clad with children’s faces, paper cranes and haikus. This mural, entitled “Peace is a Haiku Song,” features work by a number of luminaries, including Angelou. Sprawled in white letters, you can see her words.
“We hear a sweetness. The word is Peace. It is loud now. Louder than the explosions of bombs.”
Sarai Flores can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @saraiaflores.