Maya Angelou: Still She Rises

Maya Angelou: Still She Rises

By Carl M. Cannon - May 29, 2014

The world has noticeably less color than it did only yesterday: Maya Angelou has passed over to the other side.

An abused daughter of segregated Dixie, she went as a young woman to California, New York, and Africa to find her voice -- and, once discovered, that voice could never be stilled -- before returning in triumph and a hard-won peace of mind to her native South.

Maya Angelou was a memoirist, poet, actress, singer, dancer, activist, political campaigner, lecturer, and college professor. In addition to a sinecure at Wake Forest University, where she spent the last several years of her life, she was awarded dozens of honorary doctorate degrees. Three years ago, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But such tributes always seemed insufficient, for no descriptive title, no single adjective -- no string of adjectives -- could capture the scope of her talent, or describe her willingness to share those gifts.

Grateful eulogies emanated yesterday from every corner of this country and every spectrum of American life, from presidents to elementary school students.

At Mission High School in San Francisco, where she graduated in 1945 as Marguerite Johnson, the website paid tribute simply: “Mission High School says goodbye to former alum Maya in power! #phenomenalwoman.” (My mother, a lifelong admirer of Angelou, attended Mission a few years after the great writer did.)

Millions of Americans feel the same way. On this date in 1997, Angelou spoke at Lawrence University, the Wisconsin college that gave the poet her first honorary degree. It was the largest crowd ever assembled in the school chapel -- fire marshals temporarily halted her speech to clear the aisles -- and graduates drove great distances to hear her.

Among those making the trek was Judy Holmes-Jensen, who brought her teenage daughter along. “This is something she’ll treasure her whole life,” the mother said. “This is a gift beyond belief.”

Although she spoke six languages, preferred being addressed as “Dr. Angelou,” recited an original poem at a presidential inauguration, and knew that her 1969 biography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” remains a staple of feminist reading lists on college campuses, Maya Angelou was the opposite of an intellectual snob.

She was a regular on Oprah Winfrey’s television show, gave interviews freely, and reveled in the knowledge that the current generation of American college kids first glimpsed her as the velvety voiced matron singing with Elmo on “Sesame Street.”

She also knew that middle Americans who wouldn’t be caught dead in a gender studies class gleaned folk wisdom from her association with Hallmark cards. “I want my work read,” she explained simply.

On Wednesday, President Obama lauded her as “one of the brightest lights of our time -- a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” In a written statement issued at the White House, the president quoted a line that Angelou herself had applied to Nelson Mandela upon his death: “No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again, and bring the dawn.”

Obama’s predecessor also praised Angelou as one of the most talented writers of modern times. “Her words,” said George W. Bush, “inspired peace and equality and enriched the culture of our country.”

Bill Clinton released a warm statement as well. “America has lost a national treasure; and Hillary and I, a beloved friend,” it said. Echoing the words of a poem Angelou wrote for his 1993 inauguration, Clinton added, “Now she sings the songs the Creator gave to her when the river ‘and the tree and the stone were one.’”

In 2008, when Democrats were almost evenly divided over who should be the party’s presidential standard-bearer -- a choice between its first African-American nominee and its first woman -- Maya Angelou was torn. History would be made either way, but Angelou followed her heart, as she often did, going with Hillary Clinton, who was a personal friend.

It must have been a difficult decision. Angelou’s most powerful poem, in my view, is “Still I Rise,” a defiant and lyrical paean to overcoming the dual indignities of racism and sexism.

But after the Democratic nomination was decided, Angelou campaigned for Obama and was excited when he won. The week of his inauguration, she explained the source of her optimism in simple language: “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism. It takes a long time. But we are growing up.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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