How does one pay adequate tribute to the legacy of Maya Angelou, the beloved historic icon and cultural treasure who passed away on May 28? Her enduring presence as an enlightening, empowering beacon to which the hearts and minds of Black women faithfully were drawn, after all, marked her as an individual of inestimable consequence whose like we quite probably will never see again.
Dr. Angelou, nee Marguerite Annie Johnson, advanced from an auspicious literary debut, publishing her first autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings with the aid of James Baldwin, who would become a lifelong friend, to a titanic career that spanned more than a half century.
Her accomplishments included, in far from a complete listing, a film rendition of the book starring Diahann Carroll and Ruby Dee; six more autobiographies; acting turns in The Richard Pryor Special?, Poetic Justice with Janet Jackson, and Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion; as well as stints directing (Down In The Delta, starring Alfre Woodward, featuring Al Freeman, Jr), producing (Sister, Sister with Rosalind Cash, Diahann Carroll and Paul Winfield), and scoring film soundtracks (For Love of Ivy, starring Sidney Poitier). She is best known for her vast volume of poetry, most notably “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she recited at President Bill Clinton’s 1994 inauguration.
Incalculable is the intrinsic, pervasive influence Maya Angelou wielded as an indomitable force for social change. Ascending to prominence during America’s tumultuous 1960s, she stood in the international spotlight, virtually personifying Black identity. A rarity, Angelou transcended polarizing schisms that dictated who was and wasn’t “Black enough,” publicly befriending both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
On her death, a figure who benefitted immensely from the Civil Rights Era victory which Maya Angelou greatly inspired, Frank Robinson, Major League Baseball’s first Black manager, announced that she is the recipient of this year’s MLB Beacon of Life Award and stated, “[We] mourn the loss of the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou, who led a full and accomplished life and left an indelible impact on our society.” Statements were issued as well from revered activist Marian Wright Edelman and President Barack Obama.
In 2010, Maya Angelou fittingly donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Such dedication and devotion to cultural integrity was, to all intent and purposes, her signature.
Dr. Angelou succumbed to ongoing poor health at age 86. She had canceled public appearances and was working on an eighth autobiography about her experiences with national and world leaders.
On May 29, 2014, Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, of which Angelou was a member for 30 years, held a memorial service to honor this individual who, owing to her time among us, left the world a far different place than the life into which she was born.
— By Dwight Hobbes