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Only last week, I was listening to “Gather Together in My Name”, an audio book. So I was reminded of Maya Angelou’s power with words, her extraordinary life too. If there’s a more poignant and commanding example of message embedded in ‘voice’, I cannot imagine. In every line, in every pithy phrase, in every interview, she utters poetry.
We are enriched by the treasure chest of audio recordings Angelou leaves us. Look for them. Listen to her voice. Especially hear “On the Pulse of Morning”
I wonder if Arabs and other Muslims heard her words in that ode recited at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. In itself it’s a powerful invocation, so perfect for the horizon we peer onto when a leader takes office. Her ode is not for a man but for a nation, for every nation, for every one of her citizens. Angelou speaks to the horizon of every morning:–for each of us, whatever our status, whatever our condition. (I have this poem posted on the wall of my bedroom.)
Angelou in her 2008 interview with Armstrong Williams remarks: the challenge is “to defy gravity, to stand erect and remain erect, and be absolutely present… so that everything I know I have, is in this chair, with me now.” This Buddhist idea surely explains her clarity and the force of her person.
I met Maya Angelou. Yes. At the YariYari conference in New York. 1997. It was a crowded celebration of African and African-American women writers. With a small group seated around this lady—she was Yari’s honored guest– I dared: “What do we need”, I selfishly asked, “to confront, thwart and overcome racist attacks on our people?” (At that time, I was preoccupied with Arab civil rights work in this country.) Angelou’s reply was abrupt. “Shout, cry out for help. The predator senses weakness and he goes directly to it, taking it in his jaws. But, when he confronts boldness and solidarity”, she said assuredly, “then he slithers away.
“So cry out”, she admonished. “Scream, loudly.” Then she turned from me. I felt intimidated. I wanted to talk about this; but Angelou must have gauged this was enough advice. She had many young people pressing her. I’ve never forgotten those words, and tone of rebuke she used.
I read her best known book, “I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings”, early on; still, well after college.
I had another experience of this woman’s importance to Black writers in particular. Angelou’s writing career had been nourished as a member of the Harlem Writers Guild; it is said she owed much to the guild and to its leader John O. Killins. When Killins later headed the Writing Circle at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn in the 1980s, he invited me to join. That experience with him and his cluster of emerging writers made an enormous difference to my growth:—more to my finding my voice as an activist than as a writer. Transforming.
Then, when I heard Angelou read ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’, my esteem for her as a unique voice for Americans took a leap. I’ve heard that some editions of that poem exclude her references to Muslims, Arabs, and sheiks among those whose horizons she speaks to. So be sure to look for the original. You will see what I mean.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and journalist. She has visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories on numerous occasions, reporting for Pacifica-WBAI in New York and elsewhere. Her website is www.RadioTahrir.org.