RIP Maya Angelou
Author and visionary Maya Angelou died on 28th May at her home in North Carolina, aged 86. She was a rock, a river, a tree. She will not be forgotten.
Born in St. Louis in 1928, Maya Angelou lived through times of social upheaval and was able to document them in a way that made the world listen. She wrote seven autobiographies, and her first – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – is a heartbreaking memoir of her early childhood that sheds light on the racism and misogyny that she and countless others experienced. When three year old Angelou is sent by her parents to the segregated Arkansas town of Stamps, she is made to wear a wrist tag addressed to “to whom it may concern”. That’s how much people cared about what happened to her next. As a growing girl she suffers from racism both in the store run by her grandmother and on the streets, and it doesn’t get better from there. A dark, momentous event in the autobiography changes everything, and it is thanks to her own determination that she recovers the voice she lost.
The metaphor of the caged bird features again and again in Angelou’s work as she takes an eloquent and stirring approach to racism and misogyny. She herself has never stopped singing. She became the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. A young single mother who danced in clubs to make ends meet, Angelou went on to dance and sing on stages around the world. A writer with the courage to speak truth with fluid beauty, she wrote “On The Pulse of the Morning”, a poem for Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration that is generally thought to be the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history:
Listen, and read on as you listen.
“Mr. President and Mrs. Clinton,
Mr. Vice-President and Mrs. Gore,
And Americans Everywhere…
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
It says come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers – desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours – your Passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Maya Angelou was a force to be reckoned with. She was and always will be a rock, a river, a tree.
She will be missed but not forgotten. And others will follow in her footsteps, because lights like Maya Angelou will always shine brightly and guide the way.