An Unsubtle Life: Why Maya Angelou Was So Much More Than Her Poetry

Maya Angelou

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by its lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”

Maya Angelou died last night; the cause is still unknown. She was 86. And while there will be countless paeans to Angelou’s poetry, the lyricism of her words pales in comparison to the singularity of the life she led. Born in 1928, Angelou’s peripatetic childhood was the focal point of her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). In the book, Angelou recounts not only her complicated relationship with her almost always absent father  and her hard-drinking, free-living mother, but also her rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend when she was only eight-years-old. Her rapist was sent to jail for one day, and was murdered not long after his release, leaving 8-year-old Angelou mute because, as she wrote in Caged Bird, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone… Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die.”

Angelou found her voice again five years later—through poetry—though it would be decades before she started publishing her work, or even considered herself a writer. Angelou spent much of her young adulthood struggling (she was a young, single mother and battled poverty, racism, men, you name it) before finding a path to which she could devote herself, a place where she readily belonged, namely, as a storyteller. And the stories Angelou told are almost unparalleled in not only their breadth, but also their ability to capture the major touchstones of African-American life in mid-20th century America. As a member of the Harlem Writers’ Guild, Angelou was an active member of the New York writing scene and was friendly with everyone from Amiri Baraka to James Baldwin to Paule Marshall. As a singer and dancer, Angelou encountered Billie Holiday, a meeting which she memorably recounts in her memoir The Heart of a Woman:

The reality of Lady Day coming to my house slammed into me and started my body to quaking. It was pretty well known that she used heavy drugs, and I hardly smoked grass anymore. How could I tell her she couldn’t shoot up or sniff up in my house? It was also rumored that she had lesbian affairs. If she propositioned me, how could I reject her without making her think I was rejecting her?… I saw her through the screen door, and my nervousness turned quickly to shock. The bloated face held only a shadow of its familiar prettiness. When she walked into the house, her eyes were a flat black, and… her hand lay in mine like a child’s rubber toy.

And as a civil rights activist, Angelou worked with Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, who was assassinated on her 40th birthday.

It was a life that begged to be written about, which Angelou did. And while she wasn’t the first African-American woman to share her life—its trials and triumphs, both large and small—Angelou’s voice has resonated, perhaps singularly among black women writers, not because she’s an excellent poet, rather because she’s an excellent storyteller. Because, in fact, Angelou wasn’t an incredible poet (see: her Michael Jackson tribute). Her most resonating poems are as comfortable and easy to consume as a bowl of ice cream; children tend to love them. (Actually, perhaps my favorite work of Angelou’s is a children’s book version of her poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” with art by Jean-Michel Basquiat.) But that doesn’t make these poems any less powerful for being somewhat simplistic. Angelou spoke about big things: racism, sexism, fear, hope, love. And while these things have (and must) be written about with a finer hand that Angelou possessed, it is sometimes refreshing and even more powerful to have these issues rendered in broader strokes, so that it feels like you’re being hit over the head, stunned into awareness. This is what Angelou did so well; she spoke truth to power. She had so completely embraced who she was that she made it easier for those who read her or heard her speak feel better about accempting themselves, flaws and all. Angelou was unapologetic about her status as a dark-skinned woman who had dealt with every kind of prejudice imaginable and she refused to be afraid to use her voice. And it is a voice—imperfect as it was—that will be missed.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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