This caged bird is still singing.
PETER FROST pays tribute to an award winning poet, writer and champion of the civil rights movement, Maya Angelou.
Maya Angelou, one of the foremost African-American writers, thinkers and activists of our time has died in her North Carolina home aged 86.
The respectable establishment will mark her passing as a poet, writer and broadcaster but will be less keen to celebrate her record as an early and fierce civil rights champion.
Let us celebrate Dr. Angelou – she always liked to be called by the title probably because she never went to any university – as a true global renaissance woman. She was a celebrated poet, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, broadcaster as well as a leading political activist.
Above all this amazing woman was a courageous freedom fighter. Her greatest achievements were in the civil rights movement. She was close to two giants, both martyrs of that struggle, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (pictured together below).
Prior to his assassination, she and Malcolm X had plans to start a new movement to advance African-American rights. Together they planned to found the Organisation of African-American Unity.
They both intended to speak out on issues plaguing black people in the U.S. to the United Nations. UN support, they believed would cause the US real political embarrassment. In 1965 Malcolm was cut down by assassins. One dream ended.
For a number of years Angelou was a key leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – the organisation, founded by Martin Luther King was an important body in the early struggle for civil rights in the USA.
The SCLC, preached nonviolence and organised protests, boycotts marches, and voter registration drives. Again King’s political assassination, hit hard, but couldn’t kill that dream.
Angelou offered her support to Cuban leader Fidel Castro (pictured below with Malcolm X in Harlem) writing sympathetic articles when he was most hated by the US establishment. This had the predictable result that she was branded a communist. Her response was truly poetic.
“Wasn’t no Communist country that put my grandpappa in slavery.” She declared. “Wasn’t no Communist lynched my poppa or raped my mamma.”
Maya Angelou was born into typical black poverty as Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. At just eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
When the rapist was beaten to death after Angelou testified against him she cruelly blamed herself for his death. She thought her voice, her testimony, had killed him and she didn’t speak again for almost six years.
In 1941 Angelou, aged just 13, won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. The school was close to the American Communist Party (CPUSA) and was blacklisted as subversive by various State and Federal bodies.
The school gave the young Maya a good grounding, not just in music and dance but also in radical politics.
By the age of 14 lack of money forced her to drop out of school and take a job as a conductor on San Francisco’s famous cable cars. She was the first African-American woman to hold such a job.
Later, and by now pregnant, she returned to finish high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, just a few weeks after graduation. As a young single mother, she supported herself and her child by working as a waitress and cook.
In her late teens continuing poverty forced her into dancing in strip-clubs and even into prostitution to augment the earnings from the career she was beginning to build as an actress, singer and dancer.
Slowly recognition came and by 1954 she was touring 22 countries in Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced on TV and in 1957, wrote and recorded her first album, Miss Calypso.
In 1958, she moved to New York, where she acted in the historic off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom to raise funds and awareness for the civil rights movement.
James Baldwin (below) and the Harlem Writers’ Guild helped her develop her literary talents and her poems, novels, plays and best known, her autobiographical books, would make her famous and give her the voice and authority to speak out against injustice and inequality.
In the early Sixties, Angelou, always an internationalist, supported the young anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. While working in Egypt and Ghana as a journalist and editor she met and became lifelong friends with Nelson Mandela
Mandela read aloud Angelou’s poem, Still I Rise, at his 1994 presidential inauguration. In January this year, after Mandela’s death she published His Day Is Done, a poetic tribute to her great hero.
Angelou gained respect and fame for her writing. She produced seven books of semi-autobiography — most famously, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. It became an instant best seller despite attempts to ban it from some reactionary quarters.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton asked Angelou to compose an original poem, titled “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which she read at his inauguration.
In 1994 the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) presented the writer and film maker with the prestigious Spingarn Medal – the African-American Nobel Prize. It meant more to her than her Pulitzer Prize nomination, three Grammys and her many other awards.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Medal of Freedom, the USA’s highest civilian honour.
Neither respectability nor getting older however silenced her strident voice in support of worthwhile causes.
Last summer Angelou spoke out about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a white man who had shot and killed a black Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin. She told the media “that the jury verdict showed how far we still have to go as a nation”.
She was a staunch advocate for marriage equality always ready to speak out against homophobia and religious bigotry.
She told New York state Senator Shirley Huntley “To love someone takes a lot of courage. So how much more when the love is of the same sex, and the law forbids it”. Her argument convinced Huntley to vote for the measure.
Just a few days before her death she made a strong case for action to recover the kidnapped Nigerian school girls. She tweeted “Our future is threatened by the robbing of these young women’s future. We must have our darlings back so that we can help them to heal.”
The struggle for freedom and equality in the USA, and indeed the rest of the world has yet to be won. Recent advances by the forces of racism and reaction on this side of the Atlantic mean the world needs voices like Maya Angelou’s more than ever.
She may be dead, but her writings, her poems, her powerful ideas and principles live on. The bird may have flown the cage, but we can all still hear her song.
My life ain’t heaven, but it sure ain’t hell.
I’m not on top, but I call it swell
if I’m able to work, and get paid right
and have the luck to be Black, on a Saturday night.
“Wasn’t no Communist country that put my grandpappa in slavery. Wasn’t no Communist lynched my poppa or raped my mamma.”
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 31 May 2014