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May 30, 2014

When a Bird Dies, Does Its Spirit Leave Its Cage? --- In Memory of Dr. Maya Angelou

It was cold when Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” to the crowd assembled outside the Capital on January 20, 1993. The Arkansas native had been asked to write and deliver the poem by perhaps the most famous native son of Arkansas --- Bill Clinton. It is likely that Angelou was the first former sex worker ever to present at a presidential nomination.

On Wednesday, Angelou died in her home in the quiet morning hours, during the final moment of a long illness. The author, 86, was best known for her 1969 memoir, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, a candid and passionate telling of her years growing up as a black girl in the Jim Crow South. Her poetry, too, brought her national attention, especially in the wake of the Clinton inauguration. She was the first poet to read at such a ceremony since Robert Frost read at Kennedy’s in 1961, and the recording of her performance won her a Grammy. Early in her career, she also wrote works for the stage.

But perhaps Angelou’s greatest legacy is her life itself. A fierce civil rights advocate, she was close with both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. With the latter, she helped create the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and was to organize a march with King just before he was assassinated. She counted James Baldwin as a dear friend and served as a mentor to a young Oprah Winfrey.

It is difficult, indeed, to think of anything Angelou did not do. She worked as a fry cook and a prostitute, a nightclub singer and dancer. She was a witness to the Watts riots. She wrote journalism in Egypt and Ghana during the uncertain period of decolonization, and worked for a time as an administrator at the University of Ghana. In 1998, she directed Down in the Delta, a feature film starring Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes. Although she never earned a university degree, she asked those around her to call her “Dr. Angelou,” and they were happy to oblige --- even before she was given a slew of honorary doctorates for her life’s work. In 2000, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Ten years later, her country’s first black president hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around her neck.

Angelou’s life is a testament to the entire concept of the American dream --- a black woman in a country known for giving neither its due, her influence spread far beyond its roots in the 1960s Harlem literary scene, reaching those as varied as schoolchildren in the deep South to the future 44th President of the United States. Unafraid to say what needed to be said, she worked to better her country but never forgot why her work was necessary:

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

Angelou was proof that those with great compassion and a deep conviction to bring about change can find a way, no matter the circumstances. A tremendous writer, thinker and force for good, she has made a mark upon this country that will never be erased --- even as the maker herself will be sorely missed.