LET’S DO BETTER
Some people have had deplorable experiences and somehow manage to live wholesome and productive lives. These individuals sometimes feel commitments to motivate human kind to forgive, forget, and move forward. February, “Black History Month,” is an appropriate time to recognize these heroes and sheroes. This week, let’s honor Maya Angelou. She is an African American who has touched the souls of Americans and non-Americans and showed us how to live our best lives.
Angelou’s autobiography revealed she was three years old and her only sibling, Bailey Jr., was four years old, when their parents divorced and they went to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Ark. At age eight, Angelou and her brother returned to their mother’s home. Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman. She told her brother of the violation and he told the family. Freeman was convicted and spent one day in jail. Freeman was murdered and, according to rumors, he was killed by Angelou’s uncles in retaliation for the rape. Angelou stopped speaking after this ordeal. She and her brother were returned to their paternal grandmother’s home and she did not speak for five years. She later said she stopped speaking because she believed her voice caused Freeman’s murder and if she spoke her voice could cause other people to die.
Although Angelou was not speaking, she was reading. Angelou was introduced to reading by her grandmother’s friend, Bertha Flowers. Angelou did not read “light weight fiction.” She read such authors as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe.
Life has numerous unanswered questions, one being how do some individuals emerge stronger after suffering abuse and neglect, while others forever remain emotionally unhealthy which often leads to various levels of unproductiveness. Angelou eventually avoided such fate and we thank her for sharing through her poetry, books, movies, interviews, and talk shows which healed and inspired. However, initially her life was “spinning out of control.”
Although Angelou was inspired to read, her life did not follow the traditional success pattern. She dropped out of school at age 14 and began working as San Francisco’s first African American female car conductor. She returned to high school and graduated. She was pregnant with her first son, and only child, Guy, when she graduated. She worked as a cook and waitress to support her son. Reportedly, Angelou became involved in a series of unhealthy intimate relations, lived in poverty and was the “front woman” for a house of prostitution.”
Following failed marriages and no formal educational training, Angelou changed her name from Marquerite to Maya and kept her surname, Angelou. She was now on a path to reinvent herself and inspire he world.
Angelou began her professional dance career in 1955, performing “Porgy and Bess” in Europe. She danced in several countries and began learning the languages of each country where she performed. She joined the “Harlem Writing Guild” in 1959. She has written seven autobiographies, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1969, perhaps the most famous. She lived in Cairo, Egypt where she was editor of the “Arab Observer.” She taught music and drama in Ghana and edited the “African Review.” She worked with Malcolm X to help build “The Organization of African-American Unity” and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement. She composed and read a poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. She has received 50 university honorary degrees. The aforementioned accomplishments are just a few of her national and international works.
Angelou’s life explains the cliché, how some people “take the lemons of life and make lemonade.” She was a pioneer in revealing the dark side of her life and thereby showing us that one can leave the shadows and come into sunlight. Celebrities and just ordinary people have testified that Angelou’s influences led them to fulfillment and success.
We can’t say with certainty what made Angelou one of the most influential individuals in the world. We do know she was mentored by her grandmother and Bertha Flowers. We do know she was exposed to global cultures, which led to her objectivity and ability to see all human kind worthy of equality and justice. We do know she learned to forgive her enemies. Finally, we know she coined the phrase, “When we know better, we do better.” Maybe, she was taught to do better which made all the difference. Maybe our best tribute to Black History month would be to teach others to do better in the areas of which we have learned to do better. Maybe.