Maya Angelou: a Vivid, Grounded, Transcendent American Woman

At the Woman’s National Democratic Club in Dupont Circle, the Shakespeare Guild, hosted by John Andrews, was sponsoring a talk and back-and-forth between actors Ed Gero and Stacy Keach, who were starring at the Shakespeare Theater Company in the two parts of “Henry IV”, playing the title role and Falstaff, respectively.

It was high-spirited talk and theater memories—about Keach playing Falstaff for Joe Papp in Shakespeare in the Park when he was in his twenties, Gero taking on Bolingbroke twice in different productions of “Richard II.” But in the end, because this was the week that it was, Gero got up and read from “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” He spoke crisply and with emotion, because the day before, the poem’s author Maya Angelo had died at the age of 86. That news meant a lot to a lot of people, including the people here to talk about Shakespeare and acting and fathers and sons, and lines and words written by the man—William Shakespeare—whom Angelou once called “my first white love.”

If words were enough—that is writing lasting words in the form of several memoirs, many, many poems, written, recited, remembered—as achievements honored and remembered, then Angelou would be in a pantheon of the many: those gifted writers of songs, plays, novels, memoirs, histories and tales we tell ourselves down the generations. She would be among the finest practitioners, no question, and she has always been accredited in this way.

But there was more to Angelou than her status as a poet, wordsmith or writer, because she was and remains a source of inspiration not just for what she wrote, but for the life she lived — a life richly lived. Her life was the source of all the words, her youth growing up in segregated Arkansas, an African-American girl growing up in the American South were the signs of separation were everywhere, crept into your mind walking around town, bending over to get a drink of water

She wrote words, sure she did. But she did things. She had a voice that was hard to forget as a young girl by all accounts, but also as an icon, as a woman pulling the beautiful words of “On the Pulse of Morning” out into the cold inaugural air when Bill Clinton became president in January 1993: “Here on the pulse of this new day/you may have the grace to look up and out/and into your sisters eyes, into/your brother’s face, your country/and say simply/very simply/with hope/
Good morning”.

She was at some point or another a singer, a dancer, an actress—see that challenging woman in “Roots”—a mother, a wife, a number of times, a streetcar conductor. She once toured 22 countries in a production of “Porgy and Bess.” She was a traveler, a civil rights activist, and a symbol for young, and not so young African-American women just about everywhere.

She was just plain vivid. If her voice was sometimes angry, it was also pushing forward, encouraging women to do more than just keep on keeping on, to aspire, to achieve, and always recognize unfairness and injustice for what they were.

Her poem, “And I Rise,” flies out like a sharp bird, challenging everyone not to accept, to be themselves: “Does my haughtiness offend you?/Don’t you take it awful hard/’cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines/Diggin’ in my own back yard.”

Women who became teachers, who rose, too, like the sun and famous people and mothers raising children were inspired by her, as was our current National Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, herself a mighty poet.

She wrote, in the 1970s, the first of several memoirs and the most memorable: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She became after a while, and into time, an icon who transcended race while bringing it to the fore, and everyone, at some point or another, listened to her, and thought about what she said. She didn’t lack honor or honors.

So, on a Thursday afternoon, Gero, who had played Scrooge and painters, and kings and princes and blinded dukes began and then ended:

“The caged bird sings/with a fearful trill/of things unknown/but longed for still/and his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/

Sings of freedom.”


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