June 08, 2014
A Truly Phenomenal Woman

Sonya Surabhi Gupta

DR MAYA Angelou, the celebrated poet, writer, singer, and actress died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the United States on May 28, 2014. She was 86. The literary giant, most known for her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Phenomenal Woman, a collection of poems, was one of the foremost African-American writers and thinkers of our times and one of the first black women in the United States to enjoy mainstream literary success. Alongside the vast body of her creative work, Angelou will also be remembered for the legacy she leaves behind as a fierce civil rights activist, and an internationalist feminist of the Black Left. A close associate of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and an ardent supporter of President Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, she was an untiring fighter for the dignity of the African-Americans. “And Still I Rise” is the title of one of her poems which is a powerful metaphor for overcoming oppression and begins like this: 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. And in a celebration of the African- American struggle it concludes: Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise … Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. A truly multi-talented renaissance woman and cultural pioneer, Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She spent her childhood and adolescence in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. As a black woman born into poverty and segregation, Dr Angelou had first-hand experience of the brutality of racial discrimination, but she also had an unshakeable faith in the values of human dignity and rather than be seen as a victim, she saw herself as a fighter. In 1941, as a teenager, Maya Angelou’s love for the arts won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. But she became a mother at a tender age of 17, and as a young single mother, she had to work as a waitress and cook to support her son. However her passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry soon brought her back to performing arts and she went on to earn a reputation as an actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s with her dance, opera and stage and night club performances. In 1957, at the height of the Harry Belafonte-inspired calypso craze in America, she recorded her first album, Calypso Lady which captured the rich Afro-Caribbean musical tradition. In 1958, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom, a five-week show that raised money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the SCLC, the organisation founded by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. which preached nonviolence, and was instrumental in arranging protests and voter registration drives. She was also a close associate of Malcolm X prior to his assassination, and had intended to articulate along with him, the oppressive discrimination plaguing black people in the US to the United Nations, with the hope that the international body would assist in their struggle. In one of her autobiographies covering the early sixties, the period she was living in Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, Maya recalls how she met Malcolm X in 1964 and decided to come back to the US: “Malcolm X, on his last visit to Accra, had announced a desire to create a foundation he called the Organisation of African-American Unity. His proposal included taking the plight of the African-Americans to the United Nations and asking the world council to intercede on the part of beleaguered blacks. The idea was so stimulating to the community of African-American residents that I persuaded myself I should return to the United States to help establish the organisation.” Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organisation dissolved. Soon after this, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. asked Angelou to serve as northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a role in which she was instrumental in fundraising and promoting the organisation’s mission. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was hit by a sniper's bullet on the balcony in front of his room at a Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King's assassination, coinciding with her fortieth birthday, left her devastated. On the suggestion and under the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she turned to writing and this was the beginning of her progressive radicalisation. She joined the Harlem Writers’ Guild, and through it, the Black Left, and made a brave and sensational debut as an author in 1970 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in the wake of the civil rights and Black Power movements, the book became a best seller and paved the way for five subsequent autobiographical volumes and several awards and honours, making Angelou the star of state supported American multiculturalism. At her death, the list of her published verse, non-fiction, and fiction stands at more than 30 bestselling titles. It is a lesser-known fact, however, that Angelou’s first published story appeared in the Cuban periodical Revolución in 1969. Angelou’s politicisation and artistic self-discovery went in tandem with the anti-racist anti-colonial politics of the Harlem Writers Guild. In one of her autobiographical volumes entitled The Heart of a Woman, for example, she recounts the famous Khrushchev and Fidel Castro meeting at Hotel Theresa in Harlem during a UN session and the impact of this singular historical event on the African American mass of people cheering the encounter between the two leaders. She writes: “Of course, Castro never had called himself white, so he was O.K. from the git. Anyhow, America hated Russians, and as black people often said, ‘Wasn’t no Communist country that put my grandpappa in slavery. Wasn’t no Communist lynched my poppa or raped my mamma.’” Clearly, her engagement with Black Left aligned her with Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial sentiments and made her identify the struggle of the African Americans in the US as part of one larger, systemic fight. Maya Angelou’s works are often read as an affirmation of American self-reliance, and as embodying the “American Dream.” Her compelling narratives of overcoming adversity are seen as a rags-to-riches story. Read thus through the lenses of American multiculturalism and liberal feminism, they lose their political cutting edge. It is important to underline the repression of radical history and politics in such readings. Despite the denial of this radicalism, Black feminist consciousness emerges in Angelou’s writing as a testimony of her engagement with the Harlem Left and African decolonial movements. In her death the world has lost a potent voice for equality and social justice.