Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Remembering Maya Angelou

 “A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking – but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves.” 
         President Obama, awarding Maya Angelou the 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom  
"Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God." 
       Maya Angelou, poet, writer, actress, professor, spiritual goddess of freedom and hope


Maya Angelou inspired hope.
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Every once in a while in our otherwise prosaic lives a magical moment rises up and crosses our path.  This happened when the poet Maya Angelou was in Washington, DC to give a poetry reading and the DC Humanities Council invited her to join us for a grand reception at George Washington University.  I was the executive director of the Humanities Council at the time.  Angelou embraced the voices of struggle and hope, and I knew she touched the hearts and souls of DC residents. A board member, Barbara Wolfson, initiated the idea and helped bring it home.  Meet the real people of Washington, DC, we earnestly asked her.

She said yes, and the Council and the University scurried to organize a grand reception and to invite Washingtonians to attend and to meet this great poet and Renaissance woman.   It was a glorious reception.  She especially reached out to the young people we had invited.

"What's the secret to becoming a writer," one asked her.  "Read, read, read," she said in a dramatic voice, giving the young girl a big hug.

"How do poems come to you? asked another. "Write, write, write," she said with an embracing smile.

The evening went on like that for quite a while.  Angelou embodied the spirit of courage she wrote about, that "quality of the human spirit that continues to rise despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."  She lifted us up.

No one wanted the evening to end. We all felt blessed to have such a pioneer and poet with us, someone who had lifted herself up and inspired generations of young black people, nascent poets and writers everywhere to do the same.

She was a force.  She read her poetry and mingled. "I know why the caged bird sings," she whispered, sharing that intimate insight into the persistence of the human spirit.  Her presence, regal and brilliant, filled the room. She was larger than life in some ways.  She moved us.  

She moved the high and the low, the aspiring and the struggling, young and old. Unforgettable, that's what she was, and always will be.  Now she truly is a free bird, rising up in her glory, singing songs of freedom, spreading her wings, embracing the everlasting.

Caged Bird 
BY MAYA ANGELOU
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind   
and floats downstream   
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

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.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   
so he opens his throat to sing.

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.

Maya Angelou, The Complete Collected Poems (Random House, 1994).



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