A remarkable American voice has been stilled, but the entire world is poorer for it. Many of us – including me – never met Maya Angelou, yet her writing and especially her poetry had a profound effect upon us.
Maya Angelou put into prose and poetry the emotions felt by ordinary people about events that touched us all. In doing so, she expressed the aspirations of millions and the hopes they share for a better world. In A brave and startling truth, a poem which she wrote and recited at Ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations – a poem dedicated more to what the United Nations could be than to what it is – she identified the contradictions of man’s behaviour to his fellow man.
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth.
And what is that truth? It is, in part, that:
“We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines”.
But, she ends that we are yet to come to that essential understanding, and leaves us with the enduring hope that we – the people of the world – may yet do so.
“When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.”
The depth of these feelings and the capacity to express them so exquisitely came from a woman whose formal education did not go beyond High School, who was raped at the age of eight by her mother’s boyfriend, who was pregnant at 17, and whose deprived circumstances – no less than her race – forced her to work as a prostitute, a restaurant cook, a street car conductor and a cabaret dancer.
This same woman was the recipient of more than 30 Honorary Doctorates from Colleges that revered the authenticity of her work and the legitimacy of her voice – a voice that could express itself in six languages.
On his inauguration as President of South Africa, that most famous of all prisoners – the quintessential symbol of men and women imprisoned for standing-up for rights and fighting for justice – Nelson Mandela touchingly and poignantly read Maya Angelou’s Still I rise.
“Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
And while Nelson Mandela connected with that poem and recited it to proclaim his own truth, it also resonates within former colonies whose people were enslaved and who rose above the most heinous and harshest abuse, to carve for themselves a place in the world. Maya Angelou spoke for them too.
Just as Still I rise could be the anthem of the peoples of developing countries who were exploited for generations, so too does I Know why the caged bird sings represent their desire to break free of the cage in which the unfairness of the international economic and political system continues to ensnare them.
“A caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom”.
Hers was not the poetry and prose learned and recited by schoolchildren in many developing countries, including the Caribbean. The diet was Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, Kipling and Wordsworth – each valuable in their own way, but none spoke with the relevance and gut-wrenching significance of this remarkable woman, Maya Angelou. Her work should be on the reading list of every secondary school and college.
American by birth with experience born of the reality of being black and a woman, she also lived in Ghana and associated herself with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the tortuous – often brutal – Civil Rights struggle in the United States.
But something within her made her understanding universal; America was her country but the world was her constituency and so, particularly, people who yearn for equity, for tolerance and for peace.
In 1993, when Bill Clinton was elected President – touted in those days as the first ‘black’ President of the United States because of his identification with black causes – Maya Angelou was invited to recite a Poem as part of the ceremony. Symbolically naming the United States as ‘the rock, the river and the tree’ she said On the pulse of a morning:
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 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, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Asked later if Clinton’s Presidency had satisfied the hopefulness of the Poem, she said: “No. But fortunately there is that point about hope: it is never satisfied. It is met, sometimes, but never satisfied. If it was satisfied, you’d be hopeless”.
It is hopefulness that is the diamond that sparkles amongst her legacy to the world along with the remarkable wisdom of her arresting and insightful work.
Maya Angelou was – as she said in her Poem Phenomenal Woman – “Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.”
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)