The renowned African American poet, writer, and activist Maya Angelou has left the planet. She was 86. She is most known for her bestselling autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which gets its title from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s line “I know why the caged bird sings” from his poem, “Sympathy.” Dunbar’s “Sympathy” was a cry against slavery of all forms, as well as about the shackles that imprison the poet amid cyclical prejudges he feels incapable of destroying. Angelou’s own work was about dispelling prejudices to envision a more just society.
She writes, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she describes how her mother told her that she must “always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” These lines are an important reminder, especially for us hyper educated types, that we don’t have all the answers. The notion of absolute authority can be extremely dangerous—for who gets to decide what is true is a mater of power.
Education takes many forms, as Angelou poignantly points out that her education was an improvisatory process that often took place outside the classroom: “my education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert of the gap separating the written word form the colloquial […] It be’s like that sometimes.” She was truly an inspirational person, who endured and overcame much, and although she is now gone, she leaves a lasting literary and civil rights legacy.
For a brief video on Angelou’s life, click here.
Featured Image: Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dance on the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes at the The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where Hughes’ ashes were buried beneath the floor, in New York, Feb. 22, 1991.