“People will forget what you do, and
people will forget what you say, but
people won’t forget
how you made them feel.”
Maya Angelou, 1928-2014
Maya Angelou, the literary icon who died this week, gives her high school teacher Bertha Flowers credit for helping her to speak again after five years of silence and for igniting her interest in literature. Angelou once stated that the period of silence actually allowed her to absorb her surroundings more intensely. She had been mute after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
The literary master was a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement and worked directly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She authored 30 books, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is the first of six autobiographies.
Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. President Obama honored her in February of 2011 with a Medal of Freedom — the highest honor a civilian can receive and a “thank you for inspiring people of the world to be more compassionate, loving, and to act from their best selves,” according to a Final Tribute aired by ABC.
Maya Angelou was a poet, actress, activist and educator, and she believed that “Love is what can heal all.” Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she lived for years in Harlem, Ghana, and influenced lives all over the world–including Oprah Winfrey’s–who has long considered Angelou her mentor.
She was also a cook and loved to bring people together around a pot roast, a “Sunday Dinner” which she said is “one of the most intimate ways to be together.” She loved country music, she told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America.
Maya Angelou was the second poet in U.S. history to read a poem at a presidential inauguration in 1993, for Bill Clinton. (Robert Frost was the first, reading a poem for J.F.K..)
I can remember sharing “On the Pulse of Morning” with an American Literature class I taught back then. I brought in copies from the Boston Globe, and together we stood in a cirlce and read the lines aloud. I hoped literature would come alive for the students. I wanted them–at least some of them–to fall in love with the power and beauty of poetry, an art I’d come to late. Maya Angelou wrote for the everywoman and for the everyman. She wanted to touch lives–to “be a blessing” is how she would later say it.
Those were the early years of me falling in love with poetry and learning how to read and write. She was one of my teachers, and my father would surprise me with a hardback copy of The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, copyright 1994–a birthday gift. Not a man of poetry himself, he was supporting my way.
When I heard that Maya Angelou had died, I once again realized, “I haven’t been paying attention.” I miss so much in the rush and in my getting lost in worry and buzz.
I hadn’t pulled out a book of Angelou’s poetry in a long while. She was a fixture in life who I’d grown to take for granted–like a grandmother I fail to notice in the busyness of life until she can no longer speak.
Here’s the poem “Still I Rise“–a favorite of those students at Mass Bay Community College back in 1993. In this poem, feel the energy of her words, the rhythm of her lines, her love of life and her determination to share her truth.
Still I Rise
by Maya Angelou
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.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Links You Might Like:
“On the Pulse of Morning,” Inaugural poem read by Maya Angelou for Bill Clinton, 1993.
From “On the Pulse of Morning”. Poetry Foundation Website.
“Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou’s poem featured on Poem-a-Day
“Maya Angelou’s Final Recorded Words,” Special Tribute to Maya Angelou, by Dan Good via Good Morning America. May 29, 2014.
Academy of American Poets: Learn more about Maya Angelou and many poets here.
“We are all teachers whether we know it or not,” says Maya Angelou. Post by Kunbi Tinuoye, February 27, 2014.