What was it about Maya Angelou that made her magical? She had an engaging literary style to be sure, and she was prodigiously productive. But there was so much more. For one thing, there’s an originality that takes the reader by surprise. Who else would think to compare the resilience of the human spirit with the dust that rises from the beaten earth?
Originality alone was not the secret of her amazing success, of course. So what was it?
Perhaps it was her own refusal to stay down that set her apart, her ability to rise – like the dust – above childhood rape and racial prejudice and high-school pregnancy and the numerous other trials that she endured and overcame.
Perhaps it was her willingness to do whatever she needed to keep on keeping on … driving a trolley or waiting tables if that’s what it took to feed her son. She wrote verses for Hallmark, too. And she danced in nightclubs, and when the breaks came, on stage and on TV with such greats as Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey.
She was a singer – a recorded calypso singer and a diva who toured Europe in Porgy and Bess – and a film maker and an author and a professor and…
Perhaps it was her adventurous spirit, her fearlessness, that was the magical ingredient in her rise to fame. How many young women from St. Louis, Missouri would marry a South African freedom fighter and wind up editing an English-language newspaper in Cairo? Who would unhesitatingly journey to exotic countries like Ghana?
Perhaps it was her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, her desire to explore new languages and new cultures. During her travels abroad, she mastered French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language of Fanti.
And there was her resolve, her absolute refusal to abandon her principles. She would not be moved – no matter what. She drew strength from her own travails to fight for others who were downtrodden, becoming an icon of the civil rights movement.
And, of course, there was her inexhaustible energy. Success did not slow her down. Accolades did not make her complacent.
Over the years, as she was showered with honorary doctorates, presidential appointments – and even America’s highest civilian award – she kept on being Maya Angelou, writing book after book and a vast treasury of poems.
All of the above contributed to Maya Angelou’s greatness, of course, but I think it was her humanity that made her so special.
Her readers could sense that humanity. We recognized that Maya Angelou really felt our hurt, dreamed our dreams, shared our aspirations. She took our hands in hers as we ventured through this vale of tears, whispering encouragement in our ears, telling us to keep on keeping on, as she had.
She is gone now, that incredible woman from Missouri. Eighty-six years old and in frail health, she died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Wednesday. But her words remain with us. We – all of us, whatever we consider ourselves to be – should take the time to study those words. For Maya Angelou was not just a black woman, she was every woman, every person.
As she put it:
I speak to the black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition — about what we can endure, dream, fail at and survive.