It was in a seventh-grade classroom in South Central Los Angeles that I was first introduced to Maya Angelou. I still remember how the words constructed lyrical melodies that bounced like notes, luring the reader to read it as a dance. Every piece of Angelou’s work carries a certain rhythm that creates through her words an enticing performance for the reader’s eyes.
Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, as Marguerite Annie Johnson. The struggle against a heavily racist and sexist world rang through the liberating words of Angelou.
Her works have accounted for the silent voices of readers for decades. Now, at the age of 86, Angelou has passed away, leaving a legacy not only through her writing but also through the strength of character she led during her ambitious and colorful life.
Well known for her poetry and her seven autobiographies, Angelou captivated generations with lyrical attributes to her life as a black woman growing up in the South. Her most famous autobiography is her first, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which describes an 8-year-old Maya experiencing a traumatic rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.
The five years of voluntary silence she took after the sexual abuse may have fostered her unique sensitivity to sound and words. It may have created an appreciation for seeing not only the beauty in the world around her but also in recognizing the weight of her voice and words.
From a nightclub dancer to a university professor and from a poet to a playwright and actress, Angelou lived fully in expression of her passionate life. Her own accomplishments served as significant milestones for women and blacks. She brought her love of poetry as she took to performance and wrote in ways that intertwined the two. In “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou writes, “words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” These lines draw out the essence of Angelou’s preference to have her poetry read aloud and performed as opposed to merely read. Lines in the poem “Phenomenal Woman” read as a visual performance, and the words seems to sway side to side as if dancing on the hips of the speaker. This is the type of impression Angelou’s words will always have on readers.
In “Gather Together in My Name,” she describes her time in poverty and as a sex worker. Her later autobiographies continue to detail short spans of her life and bring a level of intimacy that draws the reader into a certain hypnotism through oddly universal and nostalgic moments.
Angelou’s magnetism flowed across her use of literature as a medium to attract awareness to the trials of blacks and women. She used these stories in order to connect readers on a basis that was simple and easily relatable. In a Time magazine interview last year, Belinda Luscombe asked, “Do you have any unfinished business?” in regards to Angelou’s upcoming 85th birthday.
“I’ve still not written as well as I want to,” Angelou responded. “I want to write so that the reader … can say, ‘You know, that’s the truth. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a six-foot black girl, but that’s the truth.’ ”
Still, her writing continually meets this goal of bridging gaps between people as more readers are introduced to her vivid and personal storytelling. Through her works, she’ll have what her first love William Shakespeare had — an eternal voice that will continuously be embraced by readers to come.