May 28, 2014

“Grateful for Life.” The Voice of Maya Angelou.

I rise Maya Angelou graffiti mural

Many, many years ago I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the first of several memoirs by the acclaimed writer, poet and novelist Maya Angelou, and I knew I had to do something.

What, I wasn’t yet sure. But this is the thing about Maya Angelou: she inspired.

Her death today at 86 years old marks the passing of one of the greatest voices of our time. She was the muse for Oprah Winfrey. She spoke at President Clinton’s inauguration, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost. She was a mighty, mighty woman.

She made it clear that our life is our responsibility. “A wise woman,” she once wrote “Refuses to be a victim.”

You can cry, and whine and blame others, but at the end of the day you are going to be right where you started. The only way out is to walk, one step at a time.

Angelou was named Marguerite at birth, but given the name “Maya” when a sibling said, “My-a sister.” It stuck. In so many ways, she was “My-a” muse too.

Her voice falls on a new generation. There are many today who advocate lying on a bathroom floor, crying into their sorrows. Maya Angelou was not that voice.

Angelou had a difficult life. She was raped. She had a bad marriage. She suffered from racism. But you never heard her complain. She would sooner cut off her arm than glorify unhappiness. In fact, she thought life was beautiful.

“I am grateful for life,” she said.

She taught us to take the good with the bad, because it is all life. “If you don’t like something,” she once said, “Change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Inspired by her, and by other black and southern writers including Toni Morrison and Eudora Welty, I took off for Birmingham Alabama in 1984. I was determined to be part of it, whatever “it” was. I had more gumption than sense, but it didn’t matter much. I also had the time of my life as a journalist in the American South.

Angelou made it clear that it is our responsibility to live our best lives, not just for us, but for others. Every generation deserves the promise of more. As a journalist, I found the stories I thought would make a difference. I did my part to make the world a better place.

courage maya angelou

“There is no greater agony, than bearing an untold story,” she wrote. And so, inspired, this bird sung.

Thank you, Maya Angelou, for your voice. You made a difference. You are “My-a” muse, as you belong not just to your family but to the world at large. I hope your words lead this new generation of young people to get up, stand up and live their best lives.

“I’m grateful for life,” she said. “And I live it. I believe life loves the liver of it.” And you did it well.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Eric E Castro/Flickr, Derek Bridges/Flickr


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