Maya Angelou has died. Her health hadn't been good for a while, so her friend and fellow writer Nikki Giovanni said it wasn't a surprise. Although it's sad to see Angelou go, there's no denying that she lead a very full life. She was one of the most memorable and inspiring speakers I heard in college, and afterward I kept an eye out for her other appearances. I'm far from alone in admiring her; many of my classmates and others who heard her in person posted something after her passing. Her talents as a poet, memoirist and a performer were considerable, but it was her qualities as a human being that made her so special and indelible. When I heard her, she was full of joy, and eager to share it. She was genuinely interested in other people, and her ability to listen to them – her compassion and emotional maturity – was extraordinary.
Angelou spoke for herself the best, and I wanted highlight a few pieces. Here's her performing one of her most famous poems, "And Still I Rise":
(The NPR version is good, too.)
Here's Maya Angelou speaking with Bill Moyers in 1982 in a series on creativity:
Several items stand out here. First, this is quite an intimate conversation with Moyers, himself an excellent listener. Second, there's the striking moment when Angelou decides not to cross the tracks. It's years later, and she's at this point an acclaimed woman of the arts, but old, powerful feelings come flooding back nonetheless. It's a reminder of how powerful hatred can be, of the mark it can leave on those targeted by it. I don't interpret Angelou's reluctance as fear, but rather the maturity to recognize what she's experiencing and choosing not to subject herself to old pains needlessly. (The Moyers show also has a clip of Angelou from 1973 discussing "the noble story of black womanhood.")
Here's Maya Angelou speaking with Dave Chappelle:
I appreciate Angelou's great distinction between anger and bitterness, but what I love most about this conversation is its remarkable intimacy. It takes both participants to achieve that, and Chappelle has always been sharp and thoughtful, but pay attention to how Angelou listens. (This is part 2 of 4 from a longer conversation.)
I also loved Angelou's description of her relationship with Shakespeare, and her amazement that a dead white man could capture her inner life so accurately and powerfully. Her approach to the arts was multicultural and far-ranging, as well as extremely inclusive and inviting. (An Atlantic piece by Karen Swallow Prior, "What Maya Angelou Means When She Says 'Shakespeare Must Be a Black Girl,'" sums up Angelou's perspective well.)
There's an image making the rounds (multiple versions, actually) featuring Angelou and one of best lines: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Well, Angelou made me feel inspired, as well as hopeful about human beings and their capacity to grow from compassion and immersion in the arts. She made countless others feel the same way, and that's a mighty fine legacy to leave behind.
If you wrote a piece in appreciation, feel free to link it in the comments.