I apologize in advance for being the last in a long line of people to express their sorrow and condolences at the passing of one of America’s greatest writers – but I’d be equally remiss if I didn’t say SOMETHING about her.
The only way I can put my feelings about Maya Angelou into context is to note that I first read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in high school. It was an assigned novel, but I was a voracious reader, and being given a new book by an unfamiliar author was simply a new chance for discovery and to open my horizons.
Over the years since it’s release in 1970 many of the protests about the book have focused on the graphic (but brief) mention of a traumatic childhood incident. Having already listened to hip-hop since my early years this didn’t bother me at all – but the fact she a character named after her as “a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America” DID strike a resonant chord. There aren’t many books you will read in your lifetime that will make you rethink everything you think you know, but there’s no question Maya Angelou shaped my world and influenced a lot of other young hip-hop listeners too who read her novel.
That was far from her sole contribution to the hip-hop diaspora though. She was a singer, a poet, an activist, a screenplay writer, a composer, a movie director, and even a mentor to a young Oprah Winfrey as she was rising up through the TV ranks. Out of all these things though the singular thing that struck me was what she said at President Barack Obama’s inauguration: “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism.” Having just written an editorial about the idiocy of homophobia in hip-hop earlier this week, her words bring me hope that we can all grow beyond hatred and intolerance.
Angelou certainly suffered under the burdensome yoke of racism growing up as a young black woman in the 1930’s, especially for the parts of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” we can take as autobiographical in nature, but if we’ve learned anything from her novel and her life it’s that racism didn’t hold her down – it only motivated her to try more, do more, break down more barriers that never should have been in front of her or anybody else. And if we remember her in death as we celebrated her in life, her most important contribution to the world is that she reminded us that there ARE no limits to what you can achieve. Color, religion, gender – they are all external definitions people look at you and apply – but for Maya Angelou the only definition that ever mattered was her own.