I was in France when Maya Angelou died, so I didn’t hear the news until we got back a few days ago. I was a little surprised to hear that she was 86, but if I’d thought about it, with everything that she’s witnessed and encountered, she had certainly lived a full life. Eighty-six sounds pretty good.
I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the first time in the 9th grade. It was one of the books on the summer reading list, and it’s still among those that affected me the most that freshman year–the same year I read Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Wright, the year that solidified my love for the written word and for the power of art to teach, inspire, and heal. I’ve never been a big fan of Angelou’s poems, but she is often the poet that gives my students their glimpse of poetry, and they are always quick to cite her as their favorite. She’s one of the poets that led them to feel the power of words, and that’s truly phenomenal.
My second memory of Maya Angelou was from January, 1993. I thought about it only this morning, and strangely I’ve never put these things together when I thought about Angelou’s poems, or when I talk with students about her work. Having missed out on most of the 1992 presidential election news, I was recovering from an illness at Gaylord Hospital. Not much is clear from the previous months, but I specifically remember President Clinton’s inauguration and feeling strangely giddy because a democrat had been elected, and more so that a poet was there with him. A poet; poetry was there. It was soon after my 20th birthday. I was beginning to piece things together after a “long sleep.” Things were looking up, and I remember feeling like myself again, with my cropped hair, red, acne pocked face and tracheotomy scar. I clearly remember Maya Angelou reciting “On the Pulse of Morning.” Not the words necessarily, the image of her standing there. And I remember exactly that I felt, for a very short time, invincible. Poetry was there, and Maya Angelou helped in a small but significant way helped to remember poetry. That’s pretty phenomenal.