Maya Angelou: Beauty of expression and quality of humanity her legacy

Friday, May 30, 2014    

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MANY Jamaicans would have felt a connection with Ms Maya Angelou, the American author, poet and artiste who died on Wednesday, at age 86.

Her ethnicity, of course, would have been one reason. The other, and probably the more significant, was the role she played in the civil rights movement in the United States.

Older readers will recall that Ms Angelou served as co-ordinator of the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- an organisation founded by civil rights icon Dr Martin Luther King Jr and other like-minded individuals.

In 1964, she also helped Malcolm X to establish the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, which sought to encompass all peoples in the Western Hemisphere who were of African origin as well as those in Africa.

The organisation unfortunately didn't last long after Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965. However, its brief existence inspired the birth of other groups dedicated to the advancement of black Americans in the United States.

Her social activism was no doubt influenced by her experiences in the American south in the Jim Crow era. Born on April 4, 1928 in St Louis, and named Marguerite Johnson, she saw first-hand the racial segregation that deeply polarised her country and severely victimised blacks.

In fact, in later years she wrote of the dust, hate and narrowness of the small town of Stamps in Arkansas, where she, at three years old, and her four-year-old brother were sent to live with their paternal grandmother.

Those early experiences, combined with her stints working in fast-food outlets, as a nightclub dancer, dinner cook in a creole restaurant, and in a mechanic's shop contributed to the richness of her writings which have won critical acclaim and numerous awards, including three Grammys.

It was not surprising, therefore, when Ms Angelou was invited to read one of her poems, titled On the Pulse of the Morning, at the swearing-in ceremony of Mr Bill Clinton as the 42nd president of the United States in January 1993.

When current US President Barack Obama presented Ms Angelou with America's highest civilian honour -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- in February 2011 it was a most apt award. For Ms Angelou had distinguished herself as one of the United States' best cultural ambassadors.

But even more was that the impact she made on American culture surpassed her poetry and gripping memoirs, plus the fact that she never wavered in her defence of the voiceless, as well as women and young people.

Her love for words and the beauty of expression is a legacy that must be preserved, because Ms Angelou's life and work were not only exemplary, they represented the very best of humanity.





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