The world lost a great author, poet and civil rights activist last week when Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. It also lost someone who was a great student of leadership and the creative process—who understood what it takes to have the courage to lead, who had close affiliations with some of the most well-known world leaders of her lifetime, and who could articulate the virtues of courage, steadfastness and truth as only a poet can do. The title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, says much about the extraordinary life which she led from the time when after the end of her parent’s “calamitous marriage”, she was sent by her father at the age of three to travel by train from St Louis, Missouri, with only her four-year-old brother as company to her paternal grandmother’s home in Arkansas.
That lonesome, frightening journey was only the beginning of a life which made Gary Younge of The Guardian newspaper say that one would feel glad of not having “to go through half the things she has”. These included losing her voice for five years after her mother’s boyfriend was killed, probably by some of her relatives, when she revealed that he had raped her at the age of eight. “I thought my voice killed him”, she later said, for having divulged the horrible secret.
As she grew up, the material which made up her literary creations were gathered through her experiences as San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor, nightclub dancer, cook, paint remover and both a sex worker and madam of a house of ill fame—and mother at 17. But, these were only the stepping stones in a life which led her to recite her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” at president Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, becoming only the second poet to make such a recitation since Robert Frost did so at president Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.