By Anne Adams, Professor Emerita, Cornell University
Twenty years ago, in May, 1994, at his inauguration Nelson Mandela read the poem “Still I Rise.” He had become acquainted with Maya Angelou’s writing while a “caged bird” at Robben Island prison. Of all the writers and thinkers that we know Mandela read, the inspiration reflected by the choice of poem for his inauguration—from a woman of the African Diaspora—says as much for Mandela as it does for Angelou. So, in telling a new South African society: “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”—Mandela, via Angelou (including even a reference to gold mines!), affirms the intrepid resilience that his inauguration celebrated.
Like the two works referenced above, the poem “Still I Rise,” and the literary memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (the first of a five-volume series), Maya Angelou’s writings are primarily connected to her life and work as an African American writer, stage performer, and civil rights activist. These engagements connect her with fellow travelers such as James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and numerous others. But Angelou’s engagement with the artistic and social narrative of peoples of African descent on the African continent holds an equally important place in her life. In the early 1960s, while married to a South African anti-apartheid activist, Angelou lived in Cairo, from where she subsequently moved, with her son, to Accra. The arrival in Ghana was intended to be only a stop to enroll her son at the University of Ghana, and to continue on to Liberia for a job that was awaiting her. However, as she recounts with exuberance in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, she was to remain in Ghana for more than a year, becoming an active and activist member of the African American community there that included the likes of writer Julian Mayfield, dentists Robert and Sarah Lee, and W.E.B. and Shirley Du Bois, all drawn to the promise of Black self-determination symbolized by Nkrumah’s vision. Angelou’s involvement with the Diaspora community in Ghana was a complement to her association with Ghanaians such as Efua Sutherland and J.H.K. Nketia.
Maya Angelou’s last poem, which she read on December 7, 2013, was “His Day Is Done,” a Tribute to Nelson Mandela on behalf of the American People. This final poetic tribute could serve as a eulogy for the poet herself. Everything she said in that poem could be said about her. In reminding us about Mandela that “He had not been crippled by brutes, nor was his passion for the rights of human beings diminished by twenty-seven years of imprisonment,” Maya Angelou, who wrote of the emotions of the “caged bird,” remained insistent in her optimism, invoking, for Mandela, her signature metaphor of “rising.” It is a metaphor which symbolizes her own life’s message her as well as that of Mandela’s: “No sun outlasts its sunset, but it will rise again and bring the dawn.”
African Dirge for Maya Angelou
By Bayo Omolola, Adjunct Faculty, Department of English, Humanities, and Visual and Performing ArtsBaltimore City Community College
Indigo bird dies!
No more shall we see can-wood!
But its color, ever shall it remain and be appreciated.
Powerful voice that raises other voices up
And makes hopeless hopeful,
In the house or wherever you’re now,
The world still cares to listen to you.
May the world hear you talk again?
Memory of thee lingers on;
Like Hollywood owns American movies,
You own the voices of the oppressed
And the righteous thinkers.
On a day of joy,
The break from the past,
As a new dawn opened in the chapters of American history
And the world,
Your poem gave rhythm of freedom
And millions of people saw the light
that beamed on the past.
From the White House to South Africa
From your pens
And through your voice,
The world knows better.
Simple in language,
Deep in thoughts,
When the wind blows
and your spirit flows
On a new journey
Griots feel the vacant space;
Chanters know the effect of the current moment.
The world knows you’re no more.
Rising to the moon
As your noon
Descends to night.
Great minds lives
As body becomes motionless.
Among the chosen ones
Lies the great fighters for justice.
Adieu, Maya Angelou,
Strong fighter for justice and human dignity,
Peace may you rest forever!
Please use the comments section below to share your tributes and other memories of Maya Angelou.