“You may write me down in history, with your bitter, twisted lies, you may tread me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise,” wrote Maya Angelo in the first stanza of her famous “Still I Rise” poem.
There have been many great African American writers, poets, and artists of all forms and fashions; but Maya Angelo born Marguerite Ann Johnson was truly a unique woman.
Where does one even begin when writing about the amazing life of Maya Angelou?
Not only is she one of my favorite writers and personalities of all time, but we also share a birth date – April 4th.
Last week, on May 28th she was found dead in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This was the final chapter in an extraordinary life.
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to ESPN Sports Personality Stephen A. Smith go off on critics of some of his recent comments. The most relevant part of Smith’stirade was when he talked about the fact that sports athletes are not the true American Dream.
They are a one in a million version of the American Dream, and it is people like him who grew up poor and failed fourth grade, finding his way into college. He workedreally hard in college and at several newspapers before becoming a well known TV personality.
Those words resonated with me because he was so right. So when I think of the true “American Dream,” I don’t think of millionaire athletes – I think of trailblazers like Maya Angelo.
And perhaps trailblazer isn’t a strong enough word. The rapper/actor Drake’s song also comes to mind, “Started from the bottom now we are here.”
She was a high school dropout who became a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She was a dancer in night clubs that become one of the most respected poets and writers of her time.
Maya Angelou was the embodiment of what hard work and commitment can get you in this country. She was a true renaissance woman – no she was as her renowned poem suggests, a Phenomenal Woman.
And in that very poem she writes, “When you see me passing, it ought to make you proud….’Cause I’m a woman,phenomenally. Phenomenal woman. That’s me.”
She lived a phenomenal life. She once said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
Angelou attended high school in San Francisco, and studied dance and drama. At the age of 14, she dropped out of school and became the city’s first black, female street car conductor.
She wrote 36 books and spoke six languages. She was an actress, director, playwright, composer, singer, and dancer. She even once worked as a madam in a brothel.
Perhaps she is best known for her series of six autobiographical books, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, brought the writer international recognition.
Her formal education ended in high school, but she was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees from colleges andwas nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die.
Phenomenal woman indeed. How many people walking this earth can say that they were friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Oprah, and Barack and Michelle Obama?
Angelou won three Grammys in her lifetime, and was the second poet in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration.
Maya Angelou will be missed, but never forgotten.
From the last stanza of Still I Rise.
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Signing off from a solemn place,