Maya Angelou taught us how to talk about ourselves

The esteemed writer gave us words to mark the momentous occasions of our lives.

Farah Griffin
May 28
Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English and comparative literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, where she has served as director of the Institute for Research in African American studies.

News of Dr. Maya Angelou’s passing brings enormous grief. It also brings a profound sense of gratitude: Gratitude for her words, for her wisdom, for her life, and for her generosity in sharing it all.

As with Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes before her, the poet Maya Angelou gave us words to mark the momentous occasions of our lives. Our graduations, church programs, pageants, talent shows, funerals, and inaugurations resonate with her language. Through rhythm, rhyme and cadence she presented us to ourselves as dignified, meaningful and grand. She did so in ways that were as accessible to schoolchildren as they were to statesmen. As readers and hearers of her words, we are challenged to live up to the legacy and tasks she lay before us.

Her poetry tells us who we are and what we can be. It also points us in the direction of our becoming: Sensual, dynamic women, a world historic people possessed of ancient grandeur, a multi-hued nation capable of change and greatness, citizens of the world who can shape history by leaning toward justice. She demonstrated the way, because she was all of these things.

Through rhythm, rhyme and cadence she presented us to ourselves as dignified, meaningful and grand.

As we were inhabiting her poems, few of us were fully aware of the breadth of her life. We wouldn’t learn of this until the memoirs exposed us to world events through her eyes.

In six autobiographical texts she shared a life that helped to shape the world in which we lived and our way of viewing it. Maya Angelou was a cosmopolitan intellectual, artist and activist. She was wherever black people were determining their fate. In Nkrumah’s Ghana, as part of a Pan-Africanist community of African American expatriates including W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Julian Mayfield, Tom Feelings and others, in Cairo, Paris and New York, she navigated the world capitols with a sense of grace and ease. She worked closely with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. She danced with Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey. She organized with Abbey Lincoln and the writer Rosa Guy. She acted on stage in Genet’s The Blacks and then wrote her own plays. There was no space that Maya Angelou did not claim as her own, and in doing so she claimed it for all of us. We read those memoirs and encountered our own sense of possibility.

She never seemed to say to us “I am exceptional.” Or perhaps she did, but not in a way that distinguished her from the rest of us: “I am exceptional because we are exceptional.” And, always, first and foremost she was that girl child, Marguerite Ann Johnson, “born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur.”

“I am exceptional because we are exceptional.”

We first meet Marguerite/Maya on the pages of the pioneering I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, a work of testimony and witnessing, a lifeline and a lifesaver. It is the story of a black American girl, sexually abused and silenced, brilliant and loved, told in heart wrenching, beautiful language. Published in 1969 at the height of the Black Power Movement, it sat at the forefront of a Renaissance in Black women’s writing and ushered in the era of Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Gayle Jones and others. It paved the way and dared to insist upon the significance and importance of black girls lives. It portrayed a very specific set of experiences colored by race, gender and class; but because it focused so intently on the complex humanity of those it represented, it also spoke to readers across those boundaries and others. It is one of the major autobiographies of any tradition.

And now, in the wake of her death, there will be assessments and reassessments, tributes and eulogies but most especially, there should be Gratitude. A heartfelt thank you to a woman whose greatest work of art may in fact be the life she led and the example she leaves of what it means to be a fully actualized human being.

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