Her most famous work took its title from “Sympathy,” a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. And it seems fitting, after Maya Angelou’s death at the age of 86, to recall some of what the poet said:
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore –
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
Never miss a local story.
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!”
It is not difficult to imagine why Angelou saw herself in those words, and she chose “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as the title of the celebrated 1969 memoir that would make her famous. Black girl born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis to parents whose interest in her might best be described as sporadic; coming of age during the Great Depression; an early childhood in the soul-crushing segregation of tiny Stamps, Ark.; raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend, rendered mute for years afterward by the experience; an unwed mother at 17, briefly and unsuccessfully a prostitute not long after that – did circumstance and happenstance ever leave any bird more effectively caged?
And did any bird ever beat its wings against its bars to greater effect?
A listing of Angelou’s achievements and accomplishments is so long and so varied that at some point, if you didn’t know better, you’d think somebody was pulling your leg. You’d think they were describing the work of two women. Or three.
“Caged Bird,” celebrated for its lyricism and unblunted honesty, was the first of seven memoirs. She was also a poet of great renown. Her “Still I Rise” is a sassy retort to the “bitter, twisted lies” about themselves with which African-American people contend from the womb to the tomb. Her “On the Pulse of Morning” was a song of celebration that was a highlight of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.
But there was much more. She was a playwright, a dancer and a Tony Award-nominated stage actress. She edited an English-language newspaper in Cairo, edited another in Ghana. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti, a West African language.
She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama and held a reported 30 honorary degrees. She was an actress in film (“Madea’s Family Reunion”) and television (“Roots”), and directed the movie “Down in the Delta.” She was a longtime professor of American studies at Wake Forest University. She was a confidante of both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She considered Oprah Winfrey the daughter she never had. She was a spoken word artist and sometimes made music, too.
And she was the “first Negro” hired to work on the streetcars of San Francisco.
But we will not miss her because of what she did. We will miss her because of what she was in our national life. Over and above the achievements there was to Angelou a presence and a warm thereness that are simply not duplicated anywhere in American popular culture. Sometimes to certain African-American women, once they have lived enough, seen enough, endured enough, there comes a certain majesty, a serene formidability and regal grace that stem precisely from the realization that, having lived, seen and endured, nothing really frightens them anymore.
That was Angelou. The voiceless rape victim grew up to inhabit a voice whose bigness and deep, honeyed wisdom taught and inspired generations.
It is the abiding triumph of her life that Angelou won both respect and acceptance – and admiration and esteem, and even love. And that on bruised wings, a caged bird long ago soared free.