Today, April 4, we commemorate the day on which Marguerite Annie Johnson was born in 1928. The St. Louis native who became widely known as Maya Angelou served as America’s poet, a beacon of love, and a voice of liberation for women around the world.
"Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold. That’s ego. Love liberates." - Maya Angelou
“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” – Maya Angelou
That was the manner in which Maya Angelou lived. Her life was a testament to possibility. Love was her purpose. I can recall the very moment I heard about the passing of Maya Angelou. I was at work. I excused myself, holed myself up in the restroom, and proceeded to release a stream of tears. It felt odd for me, a man who never met this woman, to be crying for her. I didn’t understand the way emotion began to overtake me. But I wasn’t alone. We all mourned Dr. Angelou. She was a woman who defied her definition as an icon, for in all of our canonization of her, she intentionally projected humanity. She remained accessible and met us where we were. Maya Angelou’s words were void of any pretense – simply, yet deeply profound – and, though she possessed a keen intellect, she spoke solely from her heart. In all of our efforts to project sainthood onto her, she remained beautifully human. She invoked a sense of familiarity in the way of a kind teacher, a doting mother, or a stern but tender grandmother. We did not personally know Maya Angelou, but she knew us.
“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” – Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was a highly prolific author who mostly existed outside of the confines of academia. Although she was bestowed with many honorary degrees, she never earned a college degree. Despite never obtaining university training, she insisted that people outside of her close circles call her “Dr. Angelou.” Angelo crafted her own narratives surrounding her identity.
Angelou’s journey to literature was a colorful one, to say the least. She became a mother at the age of seventeen and worked in many different vocations to support herself and her son, including fry cook, nightclub dancer, and performer. Maya Angelou tore away the constricting fabric of convention. She was San Francisco’s first black female cable car conductor who eventually went on to form a dance duo named “Al and Rita” with a young Alvin Ailey. Angelou also recorded a 1957 calypso album titled Miss Calypso.
Her work also included dealings which we would not deem respectable. We laud Angelou for overcoming sex abuse, but we rarely speak about her life as a sex worker. Angelou worked as a prostitute and a madam when she was a struggling mother, undoubtedly rough times for her, but also a period which she made no effort to erase or hide. Angelou openly wrote about her forays into sex work and other means of survival. As a child, she became mute for nearly five years after her convicted rapist was killed merely days after his release from jail. “I thought, my voice killed him,” Maya was quoted as saying. “I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone...”
Fortunately, Maya Angelou found her voice again. She found it in music, in dance, and on the stage. She didn’t truly start to focus on her writing career until she moved to New York in 1959. Her first publication came at the age of 31. By the time we heard the words of Maya Angelou, she had already lived a full life, a tumultuous life for someone so young. I have no doubt that Angelou’s immense capacity for love, empathy, and connection was born out of her flawed humanity. She was a woman who was respected but never engaged in great efforts to convey respectability. She was a phenomenal woman, for she embraced the full gamut of her womanhood – every scar, every nook and corner, every laugh, every tear, and every expression of confounding emotion. Her connection to our humanity was created by her commitment to her own humanity. She was spiritual but not pious, and intellectual but not alienating.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” – Maya Angelou
When remembering Maya Angelou, it’s important for us to resist the urge to sanitize her existence and reduce her to inspirational quotes and a quiet smile. Maya Angelou, a woman who neither glorified her triumphs nor downplayed her missteps, was a vibrant spirit and a life thoroughly lived. She was a boldly black lioness whose delivered radicalism couched in love. With sensual curves and wide gap-toothed laughter, her passion and love were boundless as she sought out to liberate us, taking us to new heights like a bird uncaged.