COMMENTARY
2:03 pm
Wed May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou: A Voice Stilled

Maya Angelou answers questions at her portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Maya Angelou answers questions at her portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Credit (Paul Morigi/AP Images for National Portrait Gallery)

My mother introduced me to Maya Angelou. She admired her as an artist and respected her as a strong voice for civil rights and wanted me to know her work. I was a tween when Mother took me to see her speak at a local Memphis college. I can clearly remember the packed auditorium of that long ago afternoon, and her performance. And what a performance it was! Angelou read from her work, sang, and danced weaving together a narrative about weathering pain and reveling in joy. None of us noticed three hours had passed. I was dazzled.

From then on Maya Angelou’s work was a staple in my cultural life. Through the years I never missed a chance to see her speak. And I treasured her writing. I would read and reread her books absorbed in her storytelling and awed by her finely honed imagery. The Harry Potter kids may have made midnight book purchasing a phenomenon. But, years ago, I was making late-night runs into Harvard Square to buy the latest installment of her multi-volume autobiography the instant it went on sale.

'When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe him.'

Maya Angelou’s fans span generations and include artists and readers around the world, as well as bold-facers like President Bill Clinton, who asked her to deliver a poem at his inauguration. Much was made of her closeness with billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey. I have no way to know, but I would guess that Oprah was drawn to her by what attracted so many of us: She was authentic, famously direct, unapologetically black, and warmly wise. Probably not a day goes by when my friends and I don’t utter one of Maya Angelou’s truisms. Our favorite: “When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe him.”

Maya’s multiple talents as an actor, singer, dancer and writer allowed her to move fluidly across artistic boundaries. In recent years, she wrote a cookbook, produced TV, acted in films, and wrote articles. All that while staying connected with the current goings on in the world. It was Maya Angelou who pointed out that the quote on Washington’s Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial was wrong.

And it was she who composed a lyrically powerful poem when Nelson Mandela died last year in December. Here she addresses the grieving South Africans: “We see you South African people, standing speechless at the slamming of that final door,through which no traveler returns.”

It doesn’t seem possible that this strong tree of a woman could be felled by illness and death. I admire her determination to use her voice to the end. In a tweet sent five days before she died, Maya Angelou wrote, "Listen to yourself and in that quietude, you might hear the voice of God.” The old folk in my church would say Maya heard God when he called her home with these words—“well done, my good and faithful servant, well done.”

Callie Crossley is the host of Under the Radar

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