Maya Angelou

A Great Tree Falls

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An American legend passes away, leaving behind a rare melody of freedom
Maya Angelou, the award-winning author, poet and civil-rights icon, passed away on 28 May at the age of 86. She leaves behind a lasting legacy, one that has made a deep imprint on varied individuals: from writers, feminists and musicians to leaders like Bill Clinton, during whose inauguration in 1993 she famously read her poem On the Pulse of Morning, becoming the first poet since Robert Frost to do so at a presidential inauguration.

Highly regarded as an authoritative voice on African-American culture, her most important and well-known book is the first of her seven autobiographical memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book recounts the racial discrimination she and fellow African Americans experienced growing up in Arkansas. One of the most oft-quoted lines from the memoir goes, ‘If growing up is painful for the southern black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.’ In a statement issued after her death, President Barack Obama, who had presented Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, revealed that his sister had been named Maya after the author, also saying, “Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.”

What was remarkable about Angelou was not just her achievements—she won multiple awards for her books, acted in and directed films and TV programmes, produced plays, apart from winning three Grammys for her spoken word albums – but the challenging and incredible life she lived.

Born in St Louis, Missouri, Angelou came from a broken home. Her father worked as a doorman and naval dietician, and her mother, on different occasions, worked as a nurse, a professional gambler, a bar owner and an entertainer. Mostly raised by her grandmother, Angelou had to support herself in her youth by working variously as a night-club dancer, a cook in hamburger joints, and even as a prostitute. She also worked as a streetcar conductor, becoming the first Black woman in San Francisco to do so. At the age of 17, she gave birth to a son. In her autobiography, she recalls that at the age of seven, she was raped by her mother’s then boyfriend. After the incident, and the man’s subsequent murder, for which she felt responsible, it is said she could not speak for at least five years.

In her early twenties, she briefly married a Greek sailor. After the marriage dissolved, she became a calypso dancer and singer, and started acting in plays. She then became involved in America’s civil rights movement, writing plays and essays on the American Black experience, and working closely with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Apart from her writing career and activism, Angelou, because of her deep and expressive voice, also found fame as a performer of her own works.

On the event of her passing away, the following lines from her poem When Great Trees Fall seem best to describe her legacy:

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.