Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.
-- Maya Angelo
At a gathering two Friday evenings ago, the host asked me to read a poem from Maya Angelou's, Celebration: Rituals of Peace and Prayer to acknowledge Maya's transition, and how deeply Maya had impacted the host and most of us gathered. Barbara, the host, swelled up in tears as she remarked, "I am going to miss her," speaking as if Maya was a personal friend or family member, but she was neither, or perhaps she was more. Barbara discovered Maya when she was in her twenties and has read all of Angelou's books. She intends to include her favorite of Maya's quotes as part of her business brochure: "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." There was a reflective pause after Barbara recited the above quote.
As a poet/writer, I had always wanted to share the stage with Maya Angelou, but never did. I first saw her read/perform in person in the 80s in San Francisco. I was mesmerized by her performance, the well-like depth of her voice that sucked me in like quick-sand, the piercing sharpness of her eyes that seemed to track me, and the precision lancing of her words that tossed me like a dryer, then release me tumbled-dry and warm. I left that performance silent, suffused -- Maya Angelou had demonstrated and confirmed for me the magic and power, and curative unguent of words when wielded and delivered by a master. Indisputably, she was a master, and the audience was like marbles being rolled in her palm. Several years later after Angelou's reading in San Francisco, our paths criss-crossed at the University of Hawaii, she appearing a few days before I arrived for my invited presentation.
But I knew Maya Angelou many years before then, when, I was still a teen in the 70's, someone gifted me I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I read over the weekend. I was blown away by Angelou's autobiographical novel; shocked at the racism she described, embarrassed at the explicit sex, amazed by her revelation, terrified at the abuse she described that my sheltered life had spared me, awed by her pliability and sense of self-worth, of her undaunted courage, to discuss family issues. Back then, I felt that my life in comparison was nothing more than a Maraschino cherry plopped on the top of an ice-cream sundae. I had been writing all along, since I was eight years old, but then was beginning to thinkwriting held more than a clandestine activity that helped me to understand and clarify my thoughts. Reading Angelou's brave yet vulnerable autobiography trigged a shift in my perspective, and I spent the remainder of the weekend ruminating about writing one's truth, and how one had to be a lone soldier, willing to wave the white flag in the midst of the madness of guns and bombs going off and other soldiers running every which way and some being blown asunder. Courage as a writer is the present that Maya Angelou bequeathed me.
Angelou's commonsense manner endeared her to people, and her quote, that follows, accurately describes the sort of intelligence that she possessed that allowed her to both navigate and traverse the many barriers of racism, sexism and classism that she scaled successfully, although not without scars.
I'm grateful to intelligent people. That doesn't mean educated.
That doesn't mean intellectual. I mean really intelligent. What
black old people used to call 'mother wit' means intelligence
that you had in your mother's womb. That's what you rely on.
You know what's right to do.
Possessing a shrewd and judicious disposition, Maya made wise choices that propelled and fanned her fame. The recipient of over thirty honorary doctoral degrees, and too numerous awards to name, she lived a diverse and full life. I elect to discuss three of her awards as they gave me yet other yard sticks by which to measure and strive. On January 1993, Maya Angelou was named President Bill Clinton's inaugural poet, and read "On the Pulse of Morning," the poem she wrote for such an auspicious occasion. In this fourteen stanza, narrative poem that takes a historical sweep, Angelou references the varied Americans, regardless of religious affiliations or sexual orientation or ethnic background Angelou affirms that all want liberty that is connected to understanding nature: "There is a true yearning to respond to/The singing River and the wise Rock." Then she concludes for all: "They hear. They all hear/The speaking of the Tree."
I remember watching Angelou on television as she delivered that poem, and feeling proud as my entire body was covered with goosebumps. As a result of witnessing Maya Angelou as the inaugural poet, allowed me to desire to be President Obama's inaugural poet. Although I was not selected, I wrote a poem in his honor for his first ascendancy to presidency, which is a fitting tribute. Another important award came on February 13, 2011, when President Barack Obama adorned Maya Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- and those familiar with Angelou's civil rights work in the U.S.A. as well as abroad, her speech about and for equality of all kind, will agree such an honor was earned. She knew personally the impact of such injustices, which she rightly notes, "Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible." But because of Angelou's outlook, the present was always available to her. Named, Spiritual Hero of the Year, Angelou's image graced the cover of Science of Mind, magazine, January 2014, in which she was interviewed.
A woman of candor who seemed to laugh at life's trials and tribulations and used each as a rung in a step-ladder, Maya Angelou was truly a self-made woman who diligently cleared and paved the roads on which she walked. She lived her life fearlessly, bobbing and weaving, until she was able to claim a space within the society that allowed her to speak her views, maintain her dignity and give to others. Two of her most quoted poems, "Still I Rise," and "Phenomenal Woman," speak to her bravado that illustrate extreme courage and immeasurable boldness. "Phenomenal Women" begins by dismissing physical beauty to explore more intrinsic values and characteristics -- a quiet mystery that defies convention. Lines in the final stanza of the poem says it all:
I don't shout or jump about/Or have to talk real loud...
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
'Cause I'm a woman
86 is a good age to die, when you have lived a life as full and as Maya Angelou, and whose words have touched so many across age, race and gender. As Barbara, the host, said after the reading of the poem that Friday night, "I hope others will take her [Maya Angelou] words forward and continue to be inspired by her life." I have no doubt that this will be the case, and others, not yet known writers, will find her work and as a result decide to share their truths in loud clear voices that will not be silenced by the terror of conformity or materialism. So it is only fitting that I end with the last stanza of her poem, "Still I Rise."
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
And indeed Maya rises and will continue to rise as her words are imprinted on the psyche of all who read her works and find solace and strength and resolve to move their life forward and carve their own path. Thank you Maya Angelou as your spirit flies to Alkebulan where you join your ancestors.
Opal Palmer Adisa is a poet/writer and professor of California College of the Arts. Her latest poetry collection is, 4-Headed Woman, Tia Chucha Press, 2013