It was another poet who said, “All I have is a voice.” But it was Maya Angelou, poet, author and so much more, who gave full-throated life to that idea in 86 years that almost defy description.
Her death this week at her North Carolina home was a seismic event to the fans she accrued through a public life that had almost as many panels as a quilt: Writer, performer, award-winner, Oprah mentor, on one level; witness, conscience, teacher, activist, on a deeper one.
Through all of it — an epic, operatic journey that touched the lowest and highest impulses and moments available to the human experience — was her voice: When she spoke, it could be a magnificent rumble that seemed to emanate from the core of the Earth before it broke from her mouth. When she wrote, it could be the spare syllables belonging to a judiciously frugal poet, or it could be the more bountiful narrative of a memoirist who employed the techniques of novels in telling her own indelible story.
Maya Angelou was all about voice, from the time she was a child and loved a brother with a speech difficulty (he called her Maya), to when she was raped by one of her mother’s boyfriends and decided to stop talking for five years, to expressing herself through almost every kind of art until she found her voice as a writer, penning one of Time magazine’s 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1925.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” changed literature, changed lives, changed America. With its unsparing look at race, sexuality and crimes against the body and the soul, no wonder strangers tried to still her voice, too. From 1983 to 2011, Ms. Angelou’s first autobiography underwent more than three dozen challenges by people or groups who wanted the book banned from school study. Her response was typically generous: “I feel sorry for the young person who never gets to read.”
She gave them more to read with her books of prose and poetry, and more to study with a life writ large against the backdrops of racial and gender movements she helped spawn and nurture with her voice and her example.
After Ms. Angelou’s death, another poet said of her: “She was an internationalist, a black woman from a small place who belonged everywhere.”
In a 2013 interview with Time, when asked if she had any unfinished business, she replied: “I’ve still not written as well as I want to. I want to write so that the reader in Des Moines, Iowa, in Kowloon, China, in Cape Town, South Africa, can say, ‘You know, that’s the truth. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a six-foot black girl, but that’s the truth.’ “
Still, she rises, carried by a voice that cannot be quieted by death.