Maya Angelou has passed away. Strangely enough, earlier that week, Angelou kept popping up in conversation. A friend had mentioned using one of her quotes in a project and I introduced some other friends to How to Make an American Quilt (1995). Now this could have very well been a coincidence but, all this to say, it seems her energy was already expanding into the cosmos.
Though our Tectonic Woman blog is about artists working for social change now, this is a special honorary one in memory of Maya Angelou because she was, without a doubt, all tectonic.
As with many inspirational icons from the present and the past, Angelou’s childhood and early adulthood were not easy. Speaking openly about her youth in her bestselling autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote how she became mute at eight years old after her mother’s boyfriend had sexually abused and raped her. She told her brother who then told the family. Her attacker was found kicked to death four days later. Thinking it was her fault and that her words had killed a man, she quit speaking for six years. This is when reading and writing became an important part of her life.
Yet, despite growing up in towns fraught with racial injustice and having to work low brow jobs in order to survive as a single new mother right out of high school, Angelou emerged as one of the most revered American artists worldwide.
After living and working as a journalist and professor in Africa in the early sixties, Angelou was asked by Malcolm X to join him and help create his new party called the Organization of African-American Unity. She later was also a co-creator of the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage.
“It was the awakening summer of 1960 and the entire country was in labor. Something wonderful was about to be born, and we were all going to be good parents to the welcome child. Its name was Freedom.”
The Heart of a Woman
Unfortunately Malcolm X was assassinated shortly after she returned to the U.S. Martin Luther King Jr. then approached her to work with him and she accepted. He was assassinated not long afterwards on the date of her birthday. Angelou continued throughout her life rallying for African American rights and freedoms.
“Because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently; if you’ve seen another truth and had enough courage to change your way of thinking, to say; ‘Hey everybody, you know what I said last week, I don’t believe that anymore, a little child just freaked me out.’”
In a wonderful interview from the show Iconoclast on the Sundance Channel, Angelou was paired with Dave Chappelle. A funny couple from an outside view but this episode (link below) sheds an extremely humbling light on these two icons. When they spoke about anger, Angelou only had wise words to share.
“If you’re not angry you’re either a stone or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. Now mind you, there’s a difference, you must not be bitter. Let me show you why. Bitterness is like cancer, it eats upon the host, it doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. (…) Use that anger, yes, you write it, you paint it, you dance it, you march it, you vote, you do everything about it, you talk it. Never stop talking it.”
Despite all the heartache and anger she dealt with during her lifetime, this extraordinary woman rose high above it to rub shoulders with presidents, elite celebrities and touch the souls of people worldwide through her poetry and never-ending list of books. When she spoke, she spoke poetry.
“I’m able to believe we can change and that’s what keeps me alive. Hope, yes. And just look at where we came from.”
Bless you Maya Angelou and have a wonderful new journey.
Iconoclast: Maya Angelou and Dave Chappelle