This morning, Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. This morning, we lost one of the most exceptional people of our age.
A brief look back into Maya’s life shows us that 86 years was too short to chronicle her affinity for challenging limits. There isn’t much she hasn’t done–as a world-renowned activist, historian, and poet, she has influenced innumerable lives and taught lessons to many. She was the first black and first female to deliver an inaugural poem, she has won several awards and honors (including, but not limited to, the National Medal of Arts, the Mother Theresa Award, and three Grammys), and has performed or seen her poetry performed for the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and many more. She has lived a prolific life and is hailed as a global renaissance figure, but the most inspiring things about her to me are her roots.
Maya Angelou was a product of and witness to the troubling times of the Jim Crow south. She spent most of her life dedicated to the fight for civil rights, and her many poems, books, and memoirs regarding the African American experience helped equip me and many like me with the confidence and knowledge to take on the world.
When I think back on how her wisdom found its way into my life, I realize that she had a large role in some of the most memorable parts of my childhood. Maya was there in the evenings my mom and I spent talking about the history of African Americans through select passages of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she was present for the hours and hours I spent listening to conscious hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur and Nas spit lyrics that gave new life to her words, and I like to think she was smiling somewhere on the day I knew I wanted to write and recite poetry after reading and listening to “Still I Rise” for the first time.
I can’t help but feel that Maya Angelou resonated so heavily with our generation because she taught us about change, forgiveness, courage, the meaning of life, and the human condition in ways that inspired us to be and be better, for ourselves and for others. She captured and spoke to the resilience of the downtrodden in ways that left no one out. She gave a powerful and warm voice to the brave men and women who fought for equality and fair treatment under the law, and she made it easy for others to share the plight and the celebration of the civil rights cause with her eloquent, flowing wordplay and prose.
I’ve spent a long time thinking about how I could write a tribute to Maya Angelou as poignant as the lessons I learned from her. I scribbled words in my poetry journal and tried to piece them together in a way that reflected her elegant life, going through her own works for ideas. I finally came across something that might do the trick better than I ever could. The following is a stanza from the poem “When Great Trees Fall”, which is the last poem in my favorite body of her work, I Shall Not Be Moved.
“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”