How will you remember Maya Angelou who died last week aged 86?
Will you remember her as the poet who, at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, delivered “On the Pulse of Morning”, which asks the nation to look to the future, and leave behind its cynicism?
“Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
Will you remember her as a memoirist? As a woman who defied the odds? Or will you remember Maya Angelou as a woman who experienced racial discrimination from her birth in Arkansas, her adolescence in San Francisco and LA , but went on to spend her life unafraid to vocalize her beliefs, and show us her life in autobiographies. These memoirs use such lyrical prose it is hard to separate from her poetry. In fact, naysayers have called her poetry nothing more than prose with line breaks.
We see her criticism of the discrimination she endured in her first autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” , published in 1969.
“If growing up is painful for the southern black girl,” she wrote, “being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
I read “I Know Why the Cages Bird Sings” when I first came to San Francisco. I picked it up on a friends recommendation, as Angelou had spent part of her early adolescence in The Western Addition, which by the ’80s had displaced a good proportion of a once thriving African-American community. Much of the neighborhood was physically torn down when I arrived.
Woman of Determination Who Loved Life
How this book came to be written I found showed the heart of the woman’s determination in the obituary I read in the New York Times.
“But she remained best known for her memoirs, a striking fact because she had never set out to be a memoirist. Near the end of “A Song Flung Up to Heaven,” Ms. Angelou recalls her response when Robert Loomis, who would become her longtime editor at Random House, first asked her to write an autobiography. Still planning to be a playwright and poet, she demurred. Cannily, Mr. Loomis called her again.
“You may be right not to attempt autobiography, because it is nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature,” he said. “Almost impossible.”
Ms. Angelou replied, “I’ll start tomorrow.”
She went on to write seven memoirs, her most recent being “Mom & Me & Mom” (2013)
This video where she talks about her grandmother is very moving.
Here are my three favorite quotes of Maya Angelou, which I feel show her spirit, her passion and her love of life:
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”
We have lost an incredible woman, a true American icon, an African-American pioneer. But we are fortunate to have her words to find anywhere we look, to carry with us, and inspire us now she is gone.
What are your favorite quotes or memories of Maya Angelou. What is the best thing you remember her for?
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