15 June 2014

Africa: Remembering Maya Angelou - 1928-2014


Ellease Ebele Oseye Lift up your hearts ,Each new hour holds new chances For new beginnings.

The outpouring of love across the country and on both sides of the ocean for poet Maya Angelou is a global expression of deep appreciation for an activist, author and world traveller, who in her lifetime, made this world a better world. In more than a thousand pages the writer records her amazing life in ways that bring the reader to higher ground while keeping us well grounded.

Maya Angelou would receive high honours including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, appointment as Northern Coordinator of Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and membership in The Directors Guild. January 1993 we heard her inaugural poem: "Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally/To brutishness." More than 30 universities awarded honorary degrees to the activist who helped to raise funds for the Civil Rights Movement.

In seven memoirs, beginning with I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes the Jim Crow South and answers Alain Locke's call for artists to recover African beauty. "Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid." In literature and in life the poet fully answered that call. From her gracious height at 6 feet, elegantly dressed, her presence radiated a mesmerising beauty. Maya Angelou "made visible that which we previously could not see." Even when faced with brutal subject matter, the poet's voice transcends the terror and directs the reader toward recovery.

In the early 1960's while living in Ghana, Maya Angelou met artist Tom Feelings who would literally travel the world for 25 years creating portraits of black women. The poet would have another opportunity to recover African beauty when Feelings left the artwork with her. After living with the collection for six months she wrote "Now Sheba Sings the Song", title of a collector's volume which includes the artwork and the poem where one of the women says, "My songs wreathe the people in banners/Of hope, of wisdom...."

The Heart of a Woman, published in 1981, and dedicated to her grandson, opens in 1957, two years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. This memoir culturally rooted in communal wisdom and equally rooted in history and the contemporary moment, employs all the literary techniques associated with the finest literature: effective dialogue, carefully observed settings, insightful characterisations and useful philosophical observations. "I had to trust life," the author writes, "since I was young enough to believe that life loved the person who dared to live it." This captivating work makes real conversations with Billie Holiday and Maya's son, Guy, whose innocent "barrage of questions stunned the singer".

Maya Angelou has given so much, through her life and works. She faced life's challenges with courage and compassion, finding the time to welcome and to encourage emerging authors and artists. Her robust celebration of womanhood never included disrespect for men. May 11, 1986, in a Daily News interview, she says, "We really are a balanced people, or we wouldn't be here, you know." She adds, "Julian Mayfield, James Baldwin, John Killens, Max Roach are brothers to me and I have one blood brother. I'm a good sister. They will all tell you."

In an interview last year when asked to name her favourite poets, without hesitation, she first named Amiri Baraka, whose going home ceremony we celebrated in January of this year. The two poets are caught in a celebrated photograph as they danced at the Schomburg Library, during the dedication of the Langston Hughes Auditorium. At another ceremony, dedication for the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, we heard her voice singing a traditional Ghanaian song connecting us to the Motherland. Many young women have memorised "Phenomenal Woman" and "And still I rise." With love, respect and appreciation we will continue to treasure the inspiration, the many gifts from our mentor and teacher whose grand maternal radiance continues to illuminate our world. -- Professor Oseye, author Let the Lion Eat Straw, is Professor of African Literature at Pace University, US

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