Her most famous work took its title from “Sympathy,” a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. And it seems fitting, here soon after Maya Angelou’s death at the age of 86, to recall some of what the poet said:
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore —
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!”
It is not difficult to imagine why Maya Angelou saw herself in those words, and she chose “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” as the title of the celebrated 1969 memoir that would make her famous. Black girl, born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis to parents whose interest in her might best be described as sporadic, coming of age during the Great Depression, an early childhood in the soul-crushing segregation of tiny Stamps, Ark., raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend, rendered mute for years afterward by the experience, an unwed mother at 17, briefly and unsuccessfully a prostitute not long after that … did circumstance and happenstance ever leave any bird more effectively caged?
And did any bird ever beat its wings against its bars to greater effect?
In the process, Maya Angelou created herself. Not that Angelou — the first name was a childhood nickname bestowed by her older brother, the surname taken, slightly altered, from one of her husbands — was unique in this. To the contrary, the history of American popular culture is liberally strewn with acts of self-creation, works of will by people who were able to imagine themselves beyond the limiting constraints of their lives.
But what makes Angelou different is not just the fact of her self-creation, but the depth and breadth of it. Indeed, a listing of her achievements and accomplishments is so long and so varied that at some point, if you didn’t know better, you’d think somebody was pulling your leg. You’d think they were describing the work of two women. Or three.
“Caged Bird,” celebrated for its lyricism and unblunted honesty, was the first of seven memoirs, including “Gather Together In My Name,” “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” and “Mom & Me & Mom.” Angelou was also a poet of great renown. Her “Still I Rise” is a sassy retort to the “bitter, twisted lies” about themselves with which black people contend from the womb to the tomb. Her “On The Pulse of Morning” was a song of celebration that was a highlight of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.
But there was much more. She was a playwright, a dancer and a Tony Award-nominated stage actress who toured Europe in a production of “Porgy and Bess.” She edited an English-language newspaper in Cairo and another in Ghana. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti, a West African language. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama and held a reported 30 honorary degrees. She was an actress in film (“Madea’s Family Reunion”) and television (“Roots”), and directed the movie “Down In The Delta.” She was a longtime professor of American studies at Wake Forest University. She once had a stage act with a young unknown named Alvin Ailey. She was a confidante of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She considered Oprah Winfrey the daughter she never had. She was a spoken word artist and sometimes made music, too (her album “Miss Calypso” was released in 1957 and she recorded “Been Found” in 1996 with Ashford and Simpson).
And she was the “first Negro” hired to work on the streetcars of San Francisco.
All of that explains why, on the occasion of her death, she is being called a towering figure, an icon, a renaissance woman and more. But none of it explains why that death seems to punch a hole in the ether, why the loss feels personal in a way no simple recitation of resume highlights can quantify.
We will not miss her because of what she did. We will miss her because of what she was in our national life. Over and above the achievements there was to Maya Angelou a presence, a warm thereness that are simply not duplicated anywhere in American popular culture. Sometimes to certain black women, once they have lived enough, seen enough, endured enough, there comes a certain … majesty, a serene formidability and regal grace that stem precisely from the realization that, having lived, seen and endured, nothing really frightens them anymore.
That was Maya Angelou. The voiceless rape victim grew up to inhabit a voice whose bigness and deep, honeyed wisdom taught and inspired generations.
“The black female,” she wrote in “Caged Bird,” “is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and black lack of power. The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.”
It is the abiding triumph of her life that Angelou won both respect and acceptance — and admiration and esteem, and even love. And that on bruised wings, a caged bird long ago soared free.