Maya Angelou was one of those people for whom the living of life itself was a craft.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4th, 1928, she was raised there and in Stamps, Arkansas. As a child, despite experiencing brutal racial discrimination and other upheavals that easily could have proven fatal to any young person’s dreams… her unwavering faith in the traditional African-American values of family, community, and culture helped her survive.
As a testament to the sheer force of her spirit, however, Dr. Angelou not only survived, but also evolved into an inspiring and transformative figure. One of her greatest contributions to the world was sharing her gift for resiliency by teaching -- and breathing -- strength and courage in the face of adversity.
“While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.”
Time and again, Dr. Angelou demonstrated a rare and beautiful ability to turn the raw and sometimes painful circumstances of her life into art.
After a traumatic childhood event plunged her into silence for five years… yes, five years… she willed herself to listen more deeply to those around her, especially to the words of celebrated authors of the past. This course of action, in defiance of the calamity that plagued her, ultimately helped transform her into the gifted poet and writer she was.
In 1954 and 1955, faced with the need to make money to support her small son Guy, Angelou capitalized on her passion for music and dance by touring Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess. She also studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey, and in 1957 even recorded her first album, Calypso Lady.
Emblematic of the way she leaped at every chance she could to squeeze the juice out of life, in 1960 she moved to Cairo, Egypt to serve as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer; the following year, she moved on to teach Music and Drama at the University of Ghana, while simultaneously working as feature editor for The African Review.
Through it all, she read and studied voraciously, mastering a multitude of foreign languages… and cooked, always cooked.
“All great artists draw from the same resource: The human heart,which tells us that we are all more alike than we are unalike.”
All of these experiences, all of the different colors and textures and joys and pains that Angelou experienced, developed into some of the most acclaimed writing in US history. She will, of course, always be remembered for her words, along with her tireless work towards achieving understanding and equality, her more than fifty honorary degrees, and being the second poet ever asked to read her work at an American presidential inauguration.
Yet her life was even bigger than all this, especially when we choose to measure life in ways both large and small: the ability to blossom under hardship, in the deep resonance of a voice, and not insignificantly… in the careful addition of mustard to a sauce.
Maya Angelou was indeed a phenomenal woman. Her "soothing electric vibration" will continue to stir our national spirit long after the sting of her passing subsides.
For this great American Firecracker existed. For she existed.