As far as remarkable women go, Maya Angelou was truly exceptional. The inspirational author, poet and activist sadly passed away yesterday, putting a final full stop on her lifelong series of heroic memoirs, essays and poems that helped inspire a nation. “One of the brightest lights of our time,” wrote President Obama in his statement. “A fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.”
Angelou broke down racial barriers and prejudices throughout her life. Her seven autobiographies crossed the wide expanse of her life, detailing her extraordinary upbringing and the harrowing tribulations she encountered – she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was then murdered before he could begin his sentence, most likely, Angelou wrote, by her uncles. At sixteen she both became the first female black streetcar conductor in San Francisco and gave birth; later, struggling to support her son, she began working as a calypso dancer. She was only the second poet to read at a presidential inauguration, reading "On the Pulse of Morning" for Clinton in 1993, and was awarded over 31 honoury doctoral degrees. Indeed, it was Angelou who coined the phrase, "Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option."
"Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option." — Maya Angelou
Some of her most successful works included her debut, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Mom & Me & Mom which details her fraught relationship with her indomitable mother."My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy," she wrote. "That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” For all she was sincere, she was also extremely funny. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh,” she once said, and while her books were often laced with sorrow, they were always spiked with humour.
At six foot tall, Angelou was striking to look at. In her younger years, she wore African headscarves and tribal print dresses along with her flamboyant dance costumes. As she grew older, she adopted a uniform of black jumpers, pearl necklaces and earrings. Her inspiring poem, Phenomenal Woman talks of inner beauty and female empowerment, while her books continually cite the symbolic use of clothes. Recalling her time as a streetcar conductor, she said that she loved the uniforms. She also went as far as to inspire hip hop, with Kanye West referencing her in 'Talib Kweli' and Lupe Fiasco in 'Beamin'. Kendrick Lamar also used her voice on a recording of 'Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.’
Her quotes are innumerable, her prophecies and memoirs unbelievably moving. "I've learned that people will forget what you said,” she wrote. “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel… dare to dream.”
Text by Mhairi Graham