“Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
These were the last words Maya Angelou shared with this world, via Twitter, on May 23. She passed away Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the age of 86.
“Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension,” her only child, Clyde “Guy” Johnson, said in a statement. “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.”
Angelou, a St. Louis native, recently canceled a series of public appearances due to “an unexpected illness.”
“Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time – a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Obama presented Angelou with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2011.
Eugene B. Redmond, East St. Louis poet laureate, spoke to his longtime friend a few days ago. “She was laughing and giggling and working out the time I was coming this summer,” said Redmond.
It would have been the 14th consecutive summer he spent in Angelou’s guest house on Valley Road in Winston-Salem, working on poems. Redmond has written and published more poems about Angelou than he could count. Angelou is a trustee of his internationally renowned Eugene B. Redmond (commonly referred to as EBR) Writers Club.
“She feeds eyes, ears & skies with / dancing loaves of poetry,” Redmond writes of her in one poem.
Poetry was only part of her gift.
“Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things – an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer,” Obama said.
“She won three Grammys, spoke six languages and was the second poet in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration,” her longtime friend Oprah Winfrey said in a statement.
Even as a writer, Angelou knew few bounds.
“Who else won Grammys for spoken word, was nominated for a Pulitzer for poetry, received a National Book Award for lifetime achievement (where Toni Morrison gave the intro) and had a book (‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’) made into a movie?” Redmond said.
“Who else, outside of Langston Hughes and maybe Amiri Baraka, has written in every genre? Who else excelled in poetry, fiction, autobiography, songwriting, lyrics, books for ballet? She excelled in every genre, and then she created some hybrid forms.”
She even published cookbooks. The lively atmosphere and adventurous menu served at her table is captured in Redmond’s poem “Maya’s Kitchen: Homage to SisterCook. “Smothered blues from a delta skillet – black,” Redmond writes. “Spicy proverbs from a rush of pepper soup.”
St. Louis poet and author Quincy Troupe, whose friendship with Angelou dated back 40 years, said her achievement was greatest in autobiography and performance.
“I liked her as a person, as a personality and especially as a stage presence,” Troupe said. “She could really deliver the goods. It was remarkable how she could move an audience.”
Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University and fellow author in multiple genres, agreed with Troupe’s assessment. He recalled introducing her at a campus event in St. Louis when he was still an unknown junior professor. “She gave a fantastic presentation,” Early said, “combining her literary and theatrical skills seamlessly.”
But on the page, Early said, she was strongest as a memoirist.
“‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ will always be one of the great African-American autobiographies ever written, one of the great American autobiographies,” Early said.
Perhaps it is most remarkable that one human being – emerging from an oppressed people – could encompass so many gifts and use them for so long to touch so many other people.
“Maya Angelou met, knew, encountered, cooperated and collaborated with, opposed – almost always with aplomb and dignity – represented, intimately probed, sometimes dissected, sometimes corrected, sometimes used, every one of the classic black masks,” the St. Louis poet K. Curtis Lyle said.
“She was able to accomplish this admirable feat of human complexity and visionary clarity by incorporating into her being, quite early, what the Yoruba call Ashe, or the ability to make things happen.”
“She evolved into a global voice,” said St. Louis poet Shirley Bradley LeFlore, “springing from a wellspring of black experience. I think about how she used that to connect most of us in the world.”
“What stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life,” Winfrey said. “She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace.”
Caged bird singing
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson to Bailey Johnson and Vivian Johnson in St. Louis on April 4, 1928, though she was raised by her grandmother in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas.
Her breakthrough book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1970), focusses on growing up in a small segregated Arkansas town. The worst abuse she suffered, however, came from her mother’s boyfriend, who raped her at age 7. After she spoke the rapist’s name, he was found kicked to death. Awed by the power of her own voice, she writes, she fell silent for nearly five years, speaking only to one brother.
The book – which has been translated into 17 languages and sold more than one million copies – alone would have guaranteed her literary immortality.
“She was one of the few writers, black or white or anything else, who had both a huge popular audience (every African American I know loves her work) but also was respected by the literati for her autobiographies, particularly ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’” Early said.
She adopted the stage name “Angelou” in the early 1950s when she was married to Tosh Angelos, a Greek American sailor, and dancing professionally at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub. Her singing and dancing career is described in her third memoir, “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1976).
In the first half of the 1960s, she was a civil rights activist and aspiring writer in New York. She spent the second half of the sixties living in Africa, after marrying a South African activist, experiences described in her fifth autobiography, “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986). In Ghana she roomed for a time with a fellow St. Louis native, Alice Windom.
U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay points out that she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1992, a year before she read a poem at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration – becoming only the second poet in history, after Robert Frost, to do so.
In keeping with her embrace of both high and popular culture, in 2002 she lent her name and verse to a line of Hallmark products. “I want my work read,” she told The Washington Post at the time.
Throughout all of these evolutions – and this is a very partial summary – she retained close connection to Redmond and Troupe, two St. Louis-area poets from opposite sides of the Mississippi River. In both cases, it was a family affair.
In 1970, the year her life began to change forever with the publication of her first best-selling memoir, Angelou told Redmond, “Be my brother forever.”
“The way she danced, serpentine, with Haitian movements, and then a snap of her neck like black women do, and she’d pop her finger and say, ‘Be my brother forever,’” Redmond remembered.
“‘Be my brother forever’ – back then, that meant something. Every two weeks, I’d give an elegiac poem for someone who had fallen in battle, often under suspicious circumstances. In my heart, in my gut, I knew what she meant: ‘We’re here fighting. I got you, and you got me.’”
In Troupe’s case, with a different twist of fate they might have been actual blood brother and sister.
“I saw Maya in San Francisco and she took me to meet her mother. She said her mother had something to tell me. So I go by and meet her mother – she was a lovely lady – and her mother tells me that she once had a relationship with my father!” Troupe said.
“It was shocking to me. That kind of bonded Maya and me. We could have been brother and sister in a real sense.”
Later, in 1987, Troupe had the extreme honor of serving with Angelou (and Toni Morrison) as an honorary pallbearer in the funeral service of the great author James Baldwin in New York City.
Redmond and Troupe are joined by millions of people all over the world from all walks of life mourning Maya Angelou.
“I've been blessed to have Maya Angelou as my mentor, mother/sister and friend since my 20s. She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life,” Winfrey said. “I loved her and I know she loved me. I will profoundly miss her. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”