By Brenda Robinson
Not only America, but the world has a heart kinda heavy. Maya Angelou, Ph.D., died last week and the world lost a poet, writer, producer, actress, activist, civil rights leader, composer, singer, dancer and educator. However, most of all, we lost a friend.
What made Angelou the nation and world’s friend? Firstly, she was friendly. Secondly, she was non-judgemental. Thirdly, her many failures, hard-times, successes, mistakes, and exposure to racism, sexism and the world gave her a unique ability to relate to all people.
Even “ordinary people” have spoken-out about their relationships with Dr. Angelou. The universal message from this group was Dr. Angelou befriended them at workshops, airports, at universities, at book signings and “just on the street.” This group said Angelou was like a mother, sister, an aunt. She was just real! Jesse Jackson summed it up: “She has much to teach this generation unborn about what it means to be an authentic person and the power of the genuine.” Although she spoke six languages, she always could speak the language of just plain folk.
Angelou was no pansy, yet she positively explained why humankind makes mistakes, both horrific and minor. On the one hand, she advised people to refrain from associations with those who deliver harmful actions. She was famous for saying, “when someone shows or tells you they mean you harm, believe it.” Yet, she also proclaimed, “when you know better, you do better.”
Angelou knew physical and emotional trauma. Her 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 later was murdered. 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 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. According to radio personality William Armstrong, Angelou said she actually prostituted. Perhaps Angelou’s mistakes and negative experiences contributed to her ability to relate to all people, whether dining with kings or the homeless.
Dr. Angelou was a national and international contributor. She 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, including “ I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1969, which 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 did not discriminate against personalities who had different approaches to black civil rights issues. 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. Although she was an outspoken critic of racial discrimination and expressed loyalty to the black movement, she did not support Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential run. Instead, she worked on Hilliary Clinton’s campaign for president.
Dr. Angelou received 50 honorary degrees. She received from President Obama the Medical of Freedom Award, the highest award bestowed upon a civilian. However, these aforementioned accomplishments are not what made Angelou a friend to the world. Portions of her poem, delivered at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, On the Pulse of Morning, portrays her unbiased love and connection to the world.
“So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
“The African and Native American, the Sioux,
“The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
“The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
“The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
“The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
“They hear. They all hear
“The speaking of the Tree.”
An interpretation of this poem is that all are welcome at the foot of the tree. Our gender, culture, or to which God we pray excludes none of us from humankind and includes all of us in the meaning of life and death.