In memory of Maya Angelou, by Isra Ansari
I find myself at a loss for the words that can truly and wholly commemorate an icon like Maya Angelou. At this time I feel her own words can best do her justice; the words she spoke at the passing of her friend and activist Ossie Davis were almost certainly meant for her: “When great souls die, the air around us becomes sterile, light, rare, we breathe briefly. Our eyes briefly see with a hurtful clarity, our memories, suddenly sharpened, examine, gnaw, on kind words unsaid, on promised walks not taken. Great souls die and our reality bound to them takes leaves of us.”
I first read Maya Angelou’s work in a creative writing class: we were studying her poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’, a poem that made me smile from the inside. I nodded my head knowingly after almost every stanza, and giggled at her wittiness. Rather than trying to embody the ‘perfect’ woman, the poem embodies the confidence of a woman: it captures the essence of what every woman strives to feel. Immediately after reading it, I stood taller, felt smarter, and didn’t give a damn about the world (this feeling lasted all of five minutes, but it was a great five minutes). Angelou’s words always feel like the thoughts one has before they are spoken aloud, which is exactly what she wanted: “I want to have a reader reading 30 pages of mine before she knows she’s reading.” Angelou’s work did not just appeal to the feminist in me, her memoirs, and other poems such as ‘Still I Rise’, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, and ‘To a Man’, are great examples of her seemingly effortless writing.
Maya Angelou was a career woman: she held employment in various fields throughout her life. She was a streetcar conductor, a calypso dancer, a prostitute, writer, actor, screenwriter, waitress, short order cook, singer and a professor. When asked what her most challenging job was, she replied that it was writing poetry. Talking to Alison Beard at the Harvard Business Review, Angelou said, “Writing poetry is the most challenging and it’s the one I love, when I come close to saying what I want to say, I’m over the moon! I pull out a bottle of champagne and treat myself! Even if it’s just six lines and it comes close to what I want to say… but until they come that close, they worry me like a mosquito in my ear.”
In 1960, through the Harlem Writers’ Guild, Angelou met with Martin Luther King Jr. and was named the SCLC’s Northern Coordinator; this was also around the time that Maya Angelou voiced her pro-Castro views and her anti-Apartheid opinions. In Accra, Ghana, Maya Angelou befriended Malcolm X and in his support, came back to the USA in order to start the Organization for African American Unity. However, to her shock, Malcolm X was assassinated shortly thereafter. Angelou fell into depression, which only worsened when Martin Luther King Jr. was also assassinated before she could fulfill his request for her to organize a march. It was a cruel coincidence that King passed away on her 40th birthday, and for many years after she refused to celebrate her birthday, sending flowers to King’s widow and long-time friend Coretta Scott King.
Oprah Winfrey also found a friend and mentor in Maya Angelou, Angelou even dedicated her 1993 book of essays called ‘Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now’ to the famous TV anchor. Angelou was invited by the Clintons to speak at the 1993 presidential inauguration, for which she wrote a poem called ‘On the Pulse of Morning’. She also supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries and, when her campaigns ended, she put her support behind Barack Obama. Obama later awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
The legacy Maya Angelou leaves behind is tremendous, and I firmly believe that she has done too much, touched too many souls to ever be forgotten. Her poetry, autobiographies, essays, and humanitarian work will continue to teach for many years to come.
“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Isra Ansari is an Assistant Fiction Editor for the magazine.