Dr. Maya Angelou: one of the most prolific poets, activists, authors and orators of all time. She lived a full and varied life and it’d probably be impractical to say that passing at 86 is ‘gone too soon’; but as a black-American woman writer, I’d be remiss if I didn’t express how thrown off guard I was, when I read that Maya Angelou had died. No one is ever really prepared to read about the passing of a literary heroine who’s had the profound impact on the lives of black women and just… the world, Maya Angelou had. To merely state how important Dr. Angelou’s work has been for black women and girls would be a bit of an understatement. I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing (like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye) was, and is, a quintessential read for black women and girls.
When Maya penned her 1969 autobiography, she was one of the first black women to relay an authentic and frank account of the black female lived experience (coming-of-age in the Jim Crow south, no less), to acclaim. So often, even today, black women are discouraged from sharing our personal stories – whether they are rife with triumph or trauma – and are often fed a daily diet of caricaturish, one-dimensional versions of ourselves, concocted by people who can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to navigate life in a black, female body. So the indelible mark Dr. Angelou has left is worthy of note… make no mistake about it.
To be a black writer or woman and not give credence to Dr. Angelou’s impact is to be ignorant of literary history. Maya Angelou let us know that our lived experiences matter, and that our stories are relevant to the overall human narrative. I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing was a life changer and saver for many black women and young black girls who felt like they didn’t have a voice, identity, or any allies in the face of trauma, structural inequality, and despair. Maya lived so many lives and worked a series of jobs to survive and look after her son – fry cook, dancer, actress, prostitute and madam, educator, poet – she essentially taught women… people… to forgive and love themselves and not let their pasts hold them hostage, and to do better once they learn how to discerning in their life choices.
Her words are transformative and enable/d black women to become self-aware and recount our narratives the way they need to be told — with authenticity and directness. Maya Angelou set the standard for it being okay for black women to shamelessly celebrate and luxuriate in our allure while eschewing assumed norms of womanhood. She has left us the literary tools to espouse what Phenomenal Women we are and have bestowed upon us, words of wisdom that continue to serve as nourishment for our mental and physical well-being.
So, having shared what a profound impact Maya’s work has had on me as a writer and black woman who came-of-age – a voracious reader trying to find bass in my voice, if you’re just discovering her literary canon, it’d be impolitic to reduce her to nothing more than a series of quotable platitudes found on BrainyQuotes, to misinterpret the cathartic wisdom she left us with, or to erase and discount her experiences as a black woman who lived a storied life that included having to navigate racism, Jim Crow laws, and other oppressions, before settling into life as the embodiment of (black) American literature and Poet Laureate we’ve come to know her as. While it’s important to note that Dr. Angelou’s work resonated universally, erasing the totality of her experiences to placate a myopic ‘color-blind’ agenda sans any nuance or genuine understanding or to peddle hostile #TCOT rhetoric to cudgel black folks and anti-racists with, does her legacy a great disservice and undermines her personal narrative.
Dr. Angelou lived a fruitful life! But I, admittedly, got a bit misty eyed about her passing because, in my head, she was like a great aunt, who offered the foresight and gentle prodding needed to stand, speak, and write in truth. And I’m indebted to her for the body of work she left behind.