Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4th 1928, and raised in Arkansas. She is often referred to as the pioneer for African-American Women’s writing in the U.S. and remains an internationally celebrated storyteller. Angelou’s poetry, autobiographical fiction, essays and academic works all reflect a lifetime spent devoted to a most untamed honesty. Throughout her long career, the vibrancy in which she always wrote, paired with her innate gift for making poetry accessible for even the decided non-poetry readers, is what led her to some of her most distinguished accolades. There is a constant sense of delicacy and warmth that Angelou dedicates to celebrating the existence of African Americans and the entire diaspora which too, led to her becoming a formidable anchor and household name. Upon penning ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, the first book of its kind, her blended style of fictionalised memoir was deservedly a success, initiating the start of a 7-book series and her winning the Literarian Award in 2013. Other awards include the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.

For long-time friend and fellow literary great, Toni Morrison lovingly described Angelou as “a real original” commenting on the generosity and genius of the Southern writer. Angelou’s expression is fearlessly vulnerable, it is deeply aware of its humanity and in the same instance it is emboldened by it. In Angelou’s writings, we find a poetry which wants to speak plainly, without decoration about things that are not considered poetically worthy. We find quiet, everyday rebirth in her poem ‘The Lesson’ and we find the glory of mere dust in ‘Still I Rise’. A true mark of an Angelou poem is the merging of the poetic, the personal and the spiritual, and all on the same page, most likely. She wrote with such immediacy and yet remains the most timeless and archived poet of all time. What Angelou did consistently in her varied poetic works, was say this is what I have been, this is what I have had to do, this is how I will try to be; the sacredness of the poem sits aside the brutally truthful unflinchingly. Between the pages of an Angelou poem we can almost guarantee an honouring of life and its many complexities.

While her writing and expression took many shapes and adorned many stages, whether in Ghana or Egypt, Harlem or Paris, Angelou maintained her tenderness for her Southern roots. Her accolades are an indication not only of the wide reach, but the extent of the spaces that she was able to take up. From cookbooks to stages, or be it, the trusting rhythms of Calypso musicians’ songs to world-touring musicals, Angelou’s poetry lived everywhere, speaking in some way to everyone.

In the recording featured here, ‘Family Affairs’, Angelou’s voice, weighted with memory, maintains its prophetic, signature tenor. The poem speaks of and for the legacy of African American women and others in the Diaspora who have inherited a certain silence. Both on page and orally, Angelou makes clear the casual disregard for how her generational suffering has been handled as it quickly tumbles over the line: ‘And step lightly over/ my centuries of horror’.

It is useful here, to call upon Angelou’s own musings about personal writings; in an interview with George Plimpton (1990), Angelou comments on her use of ‘I’ as truly meaning ‘we’. Here then, Angelou uses the first person singular while referring to third person plural, using the poem to offer space for African American women collectively to talk back, to mourn, to advocate for more healing space.

Continuing to reshape narratives around history and the power of being wholly seen in a sisterhood if nowhere else, other poems to find and listen to by Angelou include her iconic ‘Still I Rise’ which stands as one of her most quoted poems. Known for not being a timid woman, her poem embodies the force with which she guards her history, her family, her chosen sisters and so her collective voice. The final cadences of her voice in the performance make it clear: this is Angelou vocally bursting all of us “out of a past that’s rooted with pain” with a poem that centres Black joy. It is a love letter to uplift with ocean-size adoration, in public not in secret.

In addition, “On the Pulse of Morning” offers plentiful examples of Angelou’s affinity for creating space for all within her poetry. This poem was written specifically for President Bill Clinton’s 1993 Inauguration,  Angelou’s voice, as ancestral as it is present, calls upon a vision for “Americans everywhere” for 1993 and eternally. Using a language, in itself timeless, it somehow reads as futuristic – prophesying what might one day be “remembered by all”.

In the “The rock cries out” we are reminded that there is “no hiding place down here”, a sentiment that both promises and urges a study of morale, heart, fellow countryman and a myriad more. As the poem draws to an end, the impeccably paced listing of peoples from all nations who contribute/build up the U.S. leaves audiences waiting with impatience for whatever awaits. What awaits is a chillingly simple wish from Angelou’s imagined future: “to say simply, very simply, good morning”. The poem ends with a beginning, an ode to the freshness of gathering known well by the riverside, known once by their land and surely by Angelou herself.

Poems by Maya Angelou

Family Affairs - Maya Angelou