Maya Angelou: Voice of Power, Humanity, Grace

By Amy Elliot

Maya Angelou, celebrated poet, novelist, activist, performer and friend of presidents, died May 28 at the age of 86.

Dr. Maya Angelou. Photo: Missouri Women's Council

Dr. Maya Angelou. Photo from the Missouri Women’s Council

She is most usually renowned for her part in the Civil Rights movement, during which she worked with both Martin Luther King Jr. (with whom she shares the natal Jupiter-Saturn-Neptune grand trine) and Malcolm X, and for her contribution to literature, most famously in the 1969 autobiographical novel dealing with her early life, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

That pioneering literary work explored the various challenges and traumas she faced growing up in the segregated South; following its success, she went on to write six more memoirs. All her autobiographies were unique in their use of fiction as critique and enlargement of the genre; they have also been hailed as crucial in allowing black female authors to bring their stories, both fictional and personal, into the public eye.

Her childhood was marred by pain. At eight years old she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend; he was murdered following his conviction for the crime, and for the next five years she was virtually mute, believing that her voice had the power to kill. Though fortunately she was eventually coaxed out of this guilt reaction, she coped with this period in a way that possibly proved to be foundational: she developed a love of literature, read voraciously, and became an acute observer of the world around her.

Angelou published many volumes of poetry over several decades; her “Million Man March” was composed for that event, and she recited the specially written “On the Pulse Of Morning” at Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She was also a musician, creating movie scores and calypso albums in her own name as well as penning songs for performers such as Roberta Flack. She directed, produced and acted in films and plays. More recently, she even wrote cookbooks. Mentor to Oprah Winfrey and friend to the Clintons and Obamas, during the last third of her life her historic status was established.

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9 Responses to Maya Angelou: Voice of Power, Humanity, Grace

  1. Carol Carol says:

    Amy, Amanda and Elizabeth –

    Thanks for your gracious comments. Amanda, I laughed at (and loved) the stanza you quoted from “I Rise.” As you said, I’d never seen those four lines included in ANY excerpt. Do you think there’s any possibility that a number of the celebrities who loved being seen with her or being considered one of her friends DIDN’T know about her earlier vocation? (The thought amuses me.)

    Speaking of sex workers, I was amazed a few nights ago when I heard 28-year-old porn star Chanel Preston on the podcast “Sex With Emily” — and then checked out Chanel’s sexuality education website, NakedWithChanel.com (no, it’s not her porn promo website — it’s one she launched a few months ago to try to help bring sexual sanity to our society). Chanel blows away every stereotype of a porn star: She’s not only beautiful but she’s brilliant, articulate, insightful (truly wise beyond her years), gracious, funny, happy and healthy. (And she’s a feminist.) Moreover, her “webisodes” (interviews), blogs and Q&A are astounding — especially for someone with no formal education beyond high school.

    So, Amanda, would you please ask Eric to check out her site? If he would try to get her on his show, I guarantee she would be like no guest that I’ve heard (in the 2 years I’ve been listening, that is).

    Cheers!

  2. Elizabeth Michaud Elizabeth Michaud says:

    Great article, Amy! Inspired me to go back and reread some of her work, as well as her autobiography. And thanks for the information, Carol, I had absolutely no idea about that aspect of her life.

  3. Amanda Painter Amanda Painter says:

    Carol — I was going to post that very link last night, but ran out of steam and went to bed. :) Yes, it’s interesting how everyone is “white-washing” that part of Angelou’s life, even though she actually wrote about it quote openly. i’m sorry to say i had not been familiar enough with her life to catch the omission on my own. somehow, bizarrely, i got through high school and college in the mid-80s to mid-90s without reading her work. clearly i have some catching up to do, though i’ve long loved hearing her on Democracy Now; what a mind; what a voice!

    and i so love this stanza of hers, which apparently some people are not daring to include when they post the rest of the poem “I Rise”:

    Does my sexiness upset you?
    Does it come as a surprise
    That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
    At the meeting of my thighs?

  4. Amy E says:

    Carol, many thanks for your comment and the link, which is most interesting and educational. Please be assured that I meant no disrespect to sex workers by omitting this fact; I understood from my research that she held a variety of jobs during early adulthood, of which sex work was just one.

    Her groundedness and universal compassion were, as the blog you link to illustrates so well, characteristic, and a big part of what made her so beloved.

  5. Carol Carol says:

    You left out one crucial part of Maya Angelou’s life — but since the media has had a complete blackout on it for years (I just found out today), I don’t fault you. But especially on a site like PlanetWaves, we need to present the fullness, complexity and humanity of Maya Angelou — for as a young woman, she was a sex worker for years (a job — for she viewed it as a job that she had no shame about — that she was very open about in her autobiography). Here’s a link to a fascinating article about and eulogy to Maya by a current sex worker: http://bit.ly/Si6jzf

  6. gumbybug10 says:

    Amy: Yes, I too appreciate your words.

    One of my favorite quotes of Maya Angelou’s (which stays in my head and heart always) is: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time.”

  7. Amy E says:

    Thanks Lizzy :)

    It was an honour to write this, and a joy to research her life and many achievements. She was iconic and will be sorely missed.

  8. jinspace says:

    Lovely, Amy. Thank you.

  9. Lizzy Lizzy says:

    Thank you for this beautiful obituary, Amy. Was great to read about Maya Angelou’s natal chart. I’ll never forget when I first read her book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – and waited greedily for her next books to come out in the following years. I was pretty young at the time, European and White – but she touched deep deep chords in me, and still does.

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