Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou do their thing
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
The outpouring of love across the country and on both sides of the ocean for poet Maya Angelou is a global expression of deep appreciation for an activist, author, professor and world traveler who in her lifetime, made this world a better world.
In more than a thousand pages the writer records her amazing life in ways that bring the reader to higher ground while keeping us well grounded. Maya Angelou would receive high honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, appointment as Northern Coordinator of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and membership in The Directors Guild.
January 1993 we heard her inaugural poem: “Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally/To brutishness.” More that 30 universities awarded honorary degrees to the activist who helped to raise funds for the Civil Rights Movement.
In seven memoirs, beginning with “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou describes the Jim Crow South and answers Alain Locke’s call for artists to recover African beauty. “Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid.” In literature and in life the poet fully answered that call. From her gracious height at 6′, elegantly dressed, her presence radiated beauty. Maya Angelou made visible that which we previously could not see. Even when faced with brutal subject matter, her poetic voice transcends the terror and directs the reader toward recovery.
In the early 1960s while living in Ghana, Maya Angelou met artist Tom Feelings who would literally travel the world for twenty-five years creating portraits of Black women. The poet would have another opportunity to recover African beauty when Feelings left the artwork with her. After living with the collection for six months Maya wrote “Now Sheba Sings the Song”, the title of a collector’s volume which includes the artwork and the poem where one of the women says, “My songs wreathe the people in banners/Of hope, of wisdom….”
The Heart of a Woman, published in 1981, and dedicated to her grandson, opens in 1957, two years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. The wisdom continues in this memoir with dialogue, setting and philosophical observations used by the finest novelists. “I had to trust life,” the author writes, “since I was young enough to believe that life loved the person who dared to live it.”
This captivating work makes real her conversation with Billie Holiday and Maya’s son Guy’s innocent barrage of questions which stunned the singer.
Maya Angelou has given so much, through her life and works. In an interview last year when asked to name her favorite poets, without hesitation, she first named Amiri Baraka whose going home ceremony we celebrated in January of this year.
The two poets are caught in a celebrated photograph as they danced at the Schomburg Library during the dedication of the Langston Hughes Auditorium. At another ceremony, dedication for the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, we heard her voice singing a traditional Ghanaian song connecting us to the Motherland.
Many young women have memorized “Phenomenal Woman” and “And still I rise.” With love, respect and appreciation we will continue to treasure the life and many gifts from our talented teacher and mentor, dedicated sister and mother, Maya Angelou.