Meridian Star

Columns

May 30, 2014

The caged bird is free …

MERIDIAN — The world lost a great voice this week – a voice of deep passion, filled with agony and joy. Poet and writer, Maya Angelou died May 28 at the age of 86.

    She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. When she was 3, Maya and her brother were sent to live with paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas. The nation was in the depths of the Great Depression at this time, but Maya’s grandmother was an astute businesswoman, who owned a large general store, therefore Maya and her brother were supplied with necessary material needs. The children seemed to adjust to their new home.

    Then, their father returned them to live with their mother in St. Louis. This is when Maya’s heartache began. At age 8, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. Maya told her brother and he told the entire family. The man was only in jail one day. Four days later, Maya’s uncles kicked him to death. Immediately after this, Maya became mute for five years. She felt such guilt that she lost her voice.

    Thus, began the life of a deep feeling, extraordinary woman, with the great ability to listen and observe the world around her.

    After this terrible time, Maya and her brother were sent back to their grandmother. There Maya met family friend and teacher, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who introduced her to the literary world. For the first time, Maya read Dickens, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson and many additional voices of the written word.

    Maya wrote seven autobiographies detailing her life. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, and The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou.

    In her written work, Maya delves into rape, prostitution, poverty, crime, interracial marriage and relationship; defense of black culture and as well her lack of a university degree. She speaks of her experiences as a dancer, restaurant cook, and role as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.

    It is clearly evident Maya learned through each life experience and what she learned was shared with the world.

    She danced in the nightclub, the Purple Onion in San Francisco, toured Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess, and appeared off-Broadway in a review inspired by the film, Calypso Heat Wave.  In 1960, she met Martin Luther King and joined Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

    The following year she moved to Cairo, Egypt, and worked as associate editor for the English-language newspaper, The Arab Observer, followed by another job offer in Accra, Ghana working as an administrator at the University of Ghana. Along the way, she met Louis Gossett, Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, and many others who influenced her life.

    In 1968 she wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 and remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years.

    Maya recited her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. The poem was awarded a Grammy Award. There are so many accomplishments by this brave, talented woman that I do not have the space to list them all, but I would like to end this Maya Angelou inspired column with the first few verses of the poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – my favorite.

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