“Try to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud” – Maya Angelou
Through her life, as a poet, writer, teacher and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou stood as a shining example of humanity at its best. She brought beauty and joy to the world and taught people how to love and be kind.
When she was still very young Maya’s parents split up and she went to live with her grandmother and uncle in Arkansas. Her uncle Willie encouraged her love of books and Maya soon became known as the “little professor”.
Maya imagined the people who wrote books were her friends. Shakespeare was her favourite writer. She loved words. She also loved her big brother Bailey who always stood up for her, particularly when people said unkind things.
Maya’s father arrived one day and took the children back with him to live in St. Louis. Maya’s mother was a dancer in bars. Maya remembered watching her, describing her as being like a pretty Kite that flew up above her.
Even when she wasn’t in school Maya would spend her time with head in books. She would go to the local library and loved nothing more than to have the day free to read. Books had a life of their own. They seemed to speak to her, pleading with Maya to be read.
Around this time something terrible happened to Maya. Mr. Freeman, her mother’s boyfriend, hurt Maya by touching her and was arrested. She was only seven years old. A few days later he was released from prison and then found murdered.
Maya couldn’t believe it and thought it was her fault because she had talked and told her brother what happened. She had done the right thing but was too young to understand this. Somehow, in her mind, she figured that her talking had killed Mr Freeman. So, she decided to stop talking. She did not want anyone else to get hurt. They children went back to Arkansas and for the next five years she did not speak.
While she stopped talking on the outside she continued to converse on the inside. She kept journals, and fell in love with poetry and developed a deeper interest in reading and writing. She described herself as being like a giant ear which could absorb all sound. She would ‘eat’ the sound of poems, repeating them over and over, memorising their melodic rhythms in her mind.
A woman called Bertha Flowers helped her find her voice again. They read Charles Dickens together. Maya loved the way it sounded when read aloud. It was like music. She was learning that words are not just about what they mean. On paper they are dead put when picked up by the human voice they are brought alive, sing and can soar!
When she was a teenager Maya moved to San Francisco. She continued to write poetry and short stories and also got into dance and drama. At fifteen, she got a job as a cable car conductor. Maya got pregnant and gave birth to a son right after she graduated from school. She worked as a waitress for the next few years to support her son. All the while Maya continued to pursue her main passions: Writing and reading.
Maya worked at a record store and then later worked as a dancer and singer. She struggled as a performer; she would get so nervous before hand she felt like running away. But as soon as she began to perform, she would relax and really enjoy herself.
Gifted with a beautiful voice, Maya’s performances grew more and more popular. She even started to turn her own poems into songs which she sung on stage. Maya even started to appear on radio and TV. Eventually she got a job touring with a musical called Porgy and Bess. They travelled all over Europe and to North Africa. Not only was getting to perform a dream come true but Maya loved learning new languages and getting to explore new cultures on her travels.
Maya didn’t like being away from her son though, and she also felt that, much and all as she liked singing and dancing, it wasn’t her true calling. Her real dream was to be a writer. Through her writing she wanted to share a message of hope and love. She had been through difficult times in her own life and wanted to share a message that would help others going through something similar.
Maya moved to New York and joined the Harlem writer’s guild. She worked as a singer in a night club to pay the rent, which meant she could keep her days free to write. She wrote sketches, song lyrics, short stories, plays and poetry. Although she was good at writing Maya learned that she would have to work really hard to succeed. Talent was good but without real determination and ‘grit’ she would not be likely get anywhere.
When Maya went to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King talk about civil rights and equality for all, she was inspired to put on a show to raise money to support Dr. King. The show was called Cabaret for freedom and was a big success, featuring lots of different black singers and dancers. Maya was asked to get involved in Dr. King’s movement, speaking, fund-raising and organising. She didn’t hesitate as the cause was so close to her heart. Soon after, Maya set up with a friend an organisation called the cultural association for women of African heritage to support women’s rights. Around this time Maya also got her first short story published in a magazine.
Maya had met and fallen in love with a civil rights activist from South Africa called Gus. With him and her son Guy, Maya travelled to Egypt, where Gus was meeting with groups who were fighting for freedom and independence in Africa. Maya was always keen to embark on a new adventure. Life in Cairo was chaotic and intense. It was a city packed with life and excitement. Maya always loved embracing diversity and trying to understand those that are different from us. But she could see that while differences exist, all humans are similar underneath it all. We all have worries, concerns, hopes, and dreams. We all live and die together on this planet.
Soon Maya was working as an editor for a magazine editing the different stories that arrived from all over Africa. A few years later Guy went to University in Ghana in west Africa. She chose to go with him while Gus stayed in Cairo. They felt an immediate connection and sense of belonging in Ghana which was the first African country to gain freedom and independence.
After four years in Africa, Maya returned to the states. She spent time in San Francisco with her family, stayed in Hawaii for a time, before moving back to New York. There she settled back into her work as a writer, making plays and poetry. She was due to go back working for Dr. King when she got news that he had been shot dead. She had been friends with another black activist, Malcolm X, who had been shot dead a few years before. Dr. King’s death crushed Maya. She did not leave her apartment for weeks.
Maya had come true a lot of suffering and sorrow in her life. Other writers, like James Baldwin, encouraged her to write the story of her life. She called her first book, I know now why the caged bird sings. Just like the caged bird that longs to fly high in the sky, Maya wanted to be free of the cage that society put her in for being a black woman. The message in her book was one of hope and resilience. No matter what happens to you, not matter what you go through, you can learn to grow strong and be happy. Her book was a big success. Maya had become a famous writer.
Maya wrote a script for a film about a black woman who falls in love with a white man. She wrote the music for the film too. Maya continued to travel giving speeches and reciting poems in different parts of the country. She talked about her life and her experience. She spread the message of peace and love.
One of Maya’s most famous poems was called And still I rise. It goes like this:
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise…
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise…
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Even though she never attended college she got a job teaching at a University in North Carolina, where she taught poetry and history. Maya thought of herself first and foremost as a teacher. In fact, her whole life was an effort to educate others, through her life. “I’m not a writer who teaches, but a teacher who writes”, she claimed.
All her life she taught about the importance of forgiveness, the need for unity, the strength of the human spirit and our ability to overcome hardship. The poet Yeats once wrote, “Her voice was like music in mouth”. He might easily have been describing Maya. Her voice was full of heart and soul, bubbling with life and vitality.
President Barack Obama presented Maya with the Presidential medal of freedom in 2010 for her extraordinary work in bringing people together and healing conflict. The memory of Maya stands as a beacon of courage and resilience, showing all of us, we can triumph over tragedy.
In 2014, Maya died at eighty-six years of age.
Maya had such a great ability to use language to communicate important messages beautifully. Here are some examples:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”.
“I have learned that a friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s smile”.
She told stories throughout her life. But perhaps the most powerful story she told was the story of her life. It is a story that will continue to live and inspire other people to overcome challenges and live a full and meaningful life. As Barak Obama noted, she has inspired the rest of us to be our own best selves.