If you’ve caught the news, you already know: Maya Angelou died on Wednesday at her North Carolina home. She was 86 years old.
If you’re not familiar with Angelou’s work, you would need quite a bit of time and energy to become familiar with all she’s done over her 86 years. The list of the roles she’s played in life is shockingly long, from dancer and singer to civil rights activist and memoirist, to everything in between. In her later years, she spoke on the lecture circuit that routinely features academics, writers, singers, activists, actors, award winners, and lecturers. Maya Angelou was all of those things in one woman’s body. The famous and the important have noted her passing, with the President himself saying her death “dimmed one of the brightest lights of our time.”
In her art, Maya Angelou maintained the ability to make a powerful personal statement while keeping a universal flair that reminds me of a few other great American artists: Phyllis Wheatley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Dizzie Gillespie, or B.B. King. Angelou, at her best, is a poet who will be missed as much for her art as for the art that she references.
Yet for all I have read and heard of Dr. Angelou (who didn’t even earn a university degree, yet still is called Dr. Angelou), I still can’t forget the first time I heard her speak.
My high school government teacher made it clear that we should watch the inauguration of the new president, even though many of us were too young to have voted for him. When I turned on the television, I just caught Maya Angelou stepping forward to deliver her now-famous poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning.” Of course, I’d read her words before then, in her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and in her poem “Still I Rise.” The 1993 Presidential Inauguration of Bill Clinton, though, was the first time I’d heard her voice.
If you’ve not read the poem, I recommend you listen to it first. Hear what she says and how she uses words to create rhythm, and somehow, rhythm to create words. Understand that what she’s saying is hers, but it’s also a riff on the poetry written over the past couple thousand years or so. If she can be accused of anything, it is that she always seemed to strive to speak to the present age from a posture of agelessness.
In the final stanzas of “On the Pulse of the Morning,” Angelou speaks directly to us, the nation, in a regal way that was her habit.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands
Mold it into the shape of your most
private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Dr. Angelou’s public self is, doubtless, a woman with many talents: a true Renaissance woman in twentieth-century America that rarely allowed African-American women a voice, much less a platform. It’s breathtaking to consider all that she was able to do in one life.
As a Christian, I certainly recognize the importance she placed on words. She knew how to use them, and I’m grateful we have her work that we can compare to the centuries’ worth of writing that she so often referenced. I will miss not reading her latest poem or hearing about her lectures.
But it’s her voice that I will miss the most.