Last month the African American community lost its beautiful and genuine matriarch, the person who best personified the strength, grace and beauty of the culture. Dr. Maya Angelou spanned a period of this country’s history where conditions were deplorable for its black citizens, but she also was part of a time when all races and genders collectively fought the forces of evil represented in southern apartheid systems. Like most Black Americans she pulled herself up from the ashes of racial destruction and like the phoenix rising from the ashes, she rose to become an international figure respected by all nations and people.
The one recurring theme that has had the most profound affect on the Black culture and resonates through its literature, music and even religion is the senseless years of oppression the race has experienced in this country. Reading Dr. Angelou’s gripping memoir, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, vividly describes that struggle for Black survival through her experience growing up in Stamps, Arkansas. The reader shares with Ms. Angelou, her feelings of inferiority as a young Black girl in a society in which beauty is depicted as a quality exclusive to white women. The reader also shares with her, the traumatic experience of being raped at seven. In this first of six memoirs, she tells of the years that she did not talk and how an elderly Black lady brought her out of that self-imposed prison when she admonished the young girl, “You will never love poetry until you speak it.”
Dr. Angelou’s fame has made her an international figure but you can never take away her special place within the hearts and minds of Black Americans over the past fifty years. Aaronetta Pierce, a very close friend to Ms. Angelou, told Cary Clack in a 2010 interview for the San Antonio Express News that, “she is a benevolent sage. She uses her wisdom to teach, comfort and inspire.” Ms. Pierce’s description of her friend is well placed. She taught us all that, as a race and culture, our value and worth is precious and something we should never allow anyone else to demean. Her lesson to Blacks is magnified in lines from her 1978 verse collection: “You may write me down in history/With your bitter twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Another very important lesson to glean from the phenomenal lady’s teachings is that Black culture is an original American culture. Call us African Americans or Black Americans, the key point is that we are descendants of a race from Africa, but now have become a fusion of two cultures, European and African. She makes this point quite clear when she explained to Terry Gross in a 1986 interview on National Public Radio that her prose and poetry evolved from the rhythm and imagery of Black southern preachers, the lyricism of the spirituals, the directness of gospel and the mystery of the blues. In the same interview she told Ms. Gross that one of her favorite poets was Paul Laurence Dunbar and she learned a great deal from his poem “Sympathy.” She also mentioned her admiration for William Shakespeare and was moved by the great English writer’s ability, “to know my heart…a Black woman in the twentieth century.”
Even as Ms. Angelou grew in stature, she never moved far from her roots. She made a decision to live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a place that represents the heritage and history of the Black existence in this country. In her later years she would often talk about the rainbow in the clouds. She told us that, “God put a rainbow in the clouds to give us hope and each one of us has a chance to be a rainbow in somebody’s cloud.” She certainly has been that rainbow for not only her people, but the entire world as she constantly preached a sermon of hope, love, and dignity among the human race.