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Honoring a literary giant: Memories of Maya Angelou

By Charlene Muhammad -National Correspondent- | Last updated: Jun 3, 2014 - 8:10:18 AM

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Poet Maya Angelou addresses the Million Man March, Monday Oct. 16, 1995 on Capitol Hill. Washington Mayor Marion Barry is at left. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

The world continues to mourn the loss of Dr. Maya Angelou, beloved poet, author, civil rights activist and educator, who passed away at age 86 in her North Carolina home May 28. 

Dr. Angelou’s family, close friends and colleagues planned to gather June 7 for private funeral services at Wake Forest University. The institution has put up a remembrance website and guestbook for Dr. Angelou, mayaangelou.wfu.edu.

Dr. Angelou had been a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982. She was a member of the board of trustees for Bennett College, a private school for Black women in Greensboro, N.C. She also hosted a weekly satellite radio show for XM’s “Oprah & Friends” channel.

However, the world came to know her largely through her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The story of her breakthrough after she refused to speak following a childhood rape and the death of the one who abused her. The book was released in 1969. She would write six more books about her life, along with more than 30 other works.

 

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“When I heard the news of her passing, I was in the hospital having an MRI.  When I got dressed to return to my office one of the Brothers exclaimed that Maya Angelou had passed away.  It was as if I were hit with a bolt of lightning for I stood still in my tracks for about 10 seconds unable to move as I reflected on my Sister’s life,” said the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan in an exclusive statement to The Final Call.

“Maya Angelou was not only a tall, strong, Black beautiful woman; she also towered as a giant among human beings,” he said.

“When we organized the Million Man March, I asked Dr. Angelou if she would say a poem, and in spite of severe opposition she did.  When Dr. Angelou saw that huge throng of nearly 2 million men she wept and she recited her famous poem titled, ‘And Still I Rise.’  In the Holy Qur’an, Allah (God) Promises that He Will never waste the work of a worker male or female who works in His Cause.  She was passionate in her search for truth and in her boldness to speak the truth that she found.  She was passionate in her quest for justice and equity not only for her people but for every human being,” the Minister continued.

“Although the body of Dr. Angelou must return to the earth, yet no grave can contain her spirit, for her spirit through her work has escaped death and she will continue to live and her memory and her work will feed generations far into the future,” he said.

Dr. Angelou was celebrated by people from all walks of life, who continue to pay tribute to the actress, singer and dancer who later became best known for her poetry and writing. Her works dealt with family, powerful women, poverty and segregation with the theme that all of us are important and valuable.

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Maya Angelou during 1990s visit to Accra Ghana at the WEB DuBois Center with Kwame Toure, Dr. Ruth Love and NOI International Representative A. Akbar Muhammad.
“I think that Dr. Maya’s impact was global. When you ask her what the most important virtue was, she would always say courage because it took courage to love,” said Dr. Julianne Malveaux, economist, author and president emerita of Bennett College for women. She was among those privileged to experience an up-close, personal relationship with and be mentored by Dr. Angelou.

When Dr. Angelou spoke of love, that meant Blacks, Whites, Asians and Latinos, Dr. Malveaux said. “She loved the one-legged man and the blind woman, and she’d just lay it all out.  You have to love everybody, so to me that was part of her whole legacy. It’s just the whole notion of love,” the columnist and economist told The Final Call.

One of the prominent lessons Dr. Angelou lived and taught was everything that happens to you has some good in it, and she stressed that all the time, continued Dr. Malveaux. 

People literally could not be negative around her. Dr. Malveaux recalled visiting Dr. Angelou after a difficult experience: “She looked at me and said, ‘Whining lets a bully know there is a victim in the neighborhood.’ ”

Dr. Angelou had the ability to reach out past who she was, this icon, in her 80s, and could relate to anyone, Dr. Malveaux added. She marveled that there was so much self-knowledge the literary icon was able to share.

Dr. Malveaux continued, “I think that first book, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ you understand why the book is so popular and so important. When she talks about overcoming, overcoming. A girl who would not speak, who when she found her voice, talked to everybody!”

Everybody included the two million Black men who stood in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall during the unprecedented 1995 Million Man March convened by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and backed by grassroots leaders, activists, pastors, imams and religious leaders across the country.

“When I heard that she had passed I had a very profound sadness in the sense of emptiness, but I also have been around her a lot recently, and I knew she was fragile,” said Cora Masters Barry, former first lady of the District of Columbia.

“On one level, I miss her and on another level I’m glad she’s at peace and at rest,” she stated, reflecting on Dr. Angelou’s laughter and sense of humor, which she remembered most.

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This Feb. 15, 2011 file photo shows President Barack Obama awarding author and poet Maya Angelou the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. President Barack Obama said the passing of Angelou has dimmed “one of the brightest lights of our time.” The president said in a statement that he and first lady Michelle Obama will always cherish the time they were privileged to spend with Dr. Angelou. He says Dr. Angelou had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children and that we all have something to offer. Photo: AP/Wide World photos
Dr. Angelou’s global and intellectual gifts touch a wide spectrum of genres, of people, denominations, ages and cultures, from the youngest child who can speak English, read poetry and understand “Phenomenal Woman” to the oldest person who understands “And Still I Rise,” Ms. Masters Barry continued.

“I loved her generosity of spirit. She made everyone feel as if they were very, very special, so when you have someone like that, you feel as if someone has left that really loved you and really affirmed you and you miss that. That leaves a hole that nobody else can feel,” she told The Final Call.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, a non-profit child advocacy organization, said its thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Angelou’s family and legion of friends and admirers.

“She was a lantern when the world was a darker place, and her lyrical words provoked anger, comfort and hope for millions during the Civil Rights era and in the decades that followed,” Ms. Edelman stated in a press release.

Her statement noted that as the first Black woman poet laureate in the nation’s history, Dr. Angelou was a role model for Black girls to dream of charting new and bolder courses to lead their families, communities and the country to a better America.

Ms. Edelman expressed gratitude for Dr. Angelou’s more than four decades of friendship with the Children’s Defense Fund, particularly her dedication to its scholarship and leadership development program.

“Today even as we mourn her passing, we should be cheering her on to what she certainly believed would be a better world. Leaving the final words to Dr. Angelou from her last tweet seems only right: ‘Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God,’” she said.

President Barack Obama was also among the millions remembering Dr. Angelou’s impact on society. “With a kind word and a strong embrace, she had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer.  And while Maya’s day may be done, we take comfort in knowing that her song will continue, ‘flung up to heaven’—and we celebrate the dawn that Maya Angelou helped bring,” said the president, who awarded Dr. Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, remembers Dr. Angelou as a penetrating and deeply thoughtful woman with a unique influence accros genres. She will certainly be missed, he said.

“Yet, we are uplifted with the understanding that her incomparable contributions will live on through countless generations to come. The wisdom, humanity, love, passion, strength, compassion, determination, and perseverance that permeated her life and works have forever changed who we are and how we view ourselves as individuals, as a people and as a nation. We are all better because she chose to share her gifts with the world,” Mr. Morial stated.

Kevin Powell, president and cofounder of BK Nation, a New York City-based national organization that combines grassroots activism, pop culture, technology, and social media to advocate for the people, said an entire day was spent pulling together ­­­­­­diverse voices to honor and celebrate the passing of such a giant of a “shero.”

BK Nation’s tribute, consists of a timeline of her life, and includes a listing of her literary works, and reflections by the famous and not famous, Mr. Powell explained.

“It is our humble hope that this tribute will be read, heard, shared by you, and that we’ve captured, in some small way, the beauty and the power of this incredible force gone but never forgotten,” he stated.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

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