The Common Good

In Remembrance: Maya Angelou

When I heard the news I wept.

Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners
Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

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“Renowned Poet and Author Maya Angelou Dies at 86,” read the NBC News headline.

My fruitless effort to hold back tears was proven vain as I made my way into the bowels of a D.C. Metro station — tears streaming. I felt silly.

“Why am I crying,” I thought. “I didn’t know Maya Angelou.” I met her once, but she wasn’t family or a close friend, yet I was reacting with the same profound sense of loss, as if my own beloved great grandmother had passed?

The New York Times called her a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South” in the headline that announced Ms. Angelou’s death this morning. But for nearly four decades Dr. Maya Angelou served as a kind of great grandmother of the African-American community — a bridge between the ancestors and us.

Ms. Angelou’s landmark book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, was “among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman to reach a wide general readership,” according to The New York Times retrospective of her life and work. Thus, early in her career Ms. Angelou took her place, among the African-American community who had broken beyond the barrier and touched the world. Angelou stands with the likes of Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday, Jackie Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorraine Hansberry, whose play, A Raisin in the Sun, was the first by a black playwright to break through and shine on the Great White Way. Each of these prophets spoke and lived with clarity, excellence, specificity, and truth. Their art, sport, and lives continue to stand as witness to the world that to be black is to be human.

My first introduction to Angelou was on the small screen. It was 1977 and I was eight years old. Mom and dad gathered my sisters and me and we all sat down to watch a landmark moment in television broadcast history. The first episode of Roots, we were introduced to Kunta Kinte’s grandmother — embodied in the regal 6-foot frame of Maya Angelou. Perhaps it was then that Ms. Angelou became the grandmother of us all.

A breakthrough moment in American history, Roots aired just nine years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the unraveling of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the very first widely viewed depiction of pre-slavery African life, written and performed by African-Americans. As such, it challenged pervasive perceptions of blackness as evil, violent, inherently impoverished, and ultimately less than human. Angelou’s character was regal, loving, giving, and funny. She was human.

Over the next three decades, Angelou poured her mind and heart into a river of words that chronicled her life and the worlds in which she lived. Volumes of poetry gave voice to the soul’s cries of generations of African-American children, young adults, and elders. Her words were both the force that cut the rock and the bedrock itself in the black community; their truth, candor, and grace gave both stability and the power to rise above most foreboding trials faced down by black men and women in everyday life. And her words spoke to the nation beyond her own tribe.

In January 1993, Maya Angelou stepped to the podium on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building; she was surrounded by America. Behind her to her left sat outgoing President George H. W. Bush. Behind him sat his wife Barbara. To Angelou’s right sat incoming President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary. Surrounding them sat America — senators and representatives from every state, cabinet members, and honored guests. On the mall and in living rooms across the nation, including mine, sat people of every hue, every ethnic heritage, a spectrum of political ideologies — people from the north, the south, the east, and west. We sat, breath held, wondering what America’s poet would say on this day — America’s inauguration day.

And so she introduced the poem she had written specially for America – for that day. It began:

A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed,

Marked the mastodon,

The dinosaur, who left dried tokens

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,

Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow,

I will give you no hiding place down here.

The poem continued:

Each of you a bordered country,

Delicate and strangely made proud,

Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit

Have left collars of waste upon

My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,

If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs

The Creator gave to me when I and the

Tree and the stone were one.

Angelou did not claim to be a theologian, but her words spun theology for a nation. She was speaking of shalom — that biblical concept that envisions the day with the lion and the lamb shall lie together, the day when war shall be no more, the day when mammon will bow to Jesus. And she called forth the yearning of a nation for that day.

I met Ms. Angelou once. I was a 20-something temp worker at the International Channel in Los Angeles. I was an aspiring poet and playwright, so when I heard that she was going to use one of our studios that day, I dropped everything and snuck into the back of the studio to watch her do a live video cast with a classroom of students halfway across the world. After the video cast, I approached this woman who towered above my 5’9” frame. She smiled and offered her hand. I stammered and all I could say was “Thank you.”

Maya Angelou, today on the day when you rise to our Creator, we all say “Thank you” for your words; the river of words you let stream forth to water the earth. We thank you for your towering grace. It will continue to stand — like the Redwoods of Yosemite — as monument of human grace, beauty. And we thank you for serving as a rock for generations of African Americans.

She was a rock.

She was a river.

She was a tree.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014).

Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith – forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan)

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