Goodbye, and thank you, Maya Angelou

You have taught so many of us caged birds to sing of freedom


Sanskrita Bharadwaj | May 29, 2014

“Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?”

The lines by the poet-author-playwright-filmmaker-journalist-editor-lyricist-teacher-singer-dancer – and the innumerable other interests she harbored to make it a mega-hyphenated calling card – Maya Angelou was on my news feed today. When I logged into most of my social media habitats this morning, I was taken aback by the news of her death. The legend was gone.

At that, I cursed my ignorance – I must have been the last person to know about the 86-year-old’s death – and then I cursed May 28. It will go down as one of most evil days in the history of women’s writing.

I have often wondered how one writes an obituary for a person one has never met but only admired. Maya Angelou was the diva of American culture, of feminist literature. But no, I am not writing her obituary here. I am just writing about myself – and Angelou’s ‘role’ in making me fall in love. With the language. With literature. With words. With expressions.

Today I am thinking of the days when I started loving literature for its sheer lucidity, for its ability to tell stories with innocence, for its skill of changing minds and making them ‘think’. I first read one of Angelou’s poems during my early days in college, back in 2008. I came from a small city in Assam to study English Literature at Delhi University. Honestly, I did not know anything about Literature until I was 18. Most of it was too heavy and not my cup of tea. Amid the very-hard-to-grasp 14th century Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, women’s writing came as a breath of fresh air – and in that Angelou’s poems, too.
Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” was one that shook half of my classmates. Today, I am still grateful to my professor to have introduced me to her poetry:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.”

I liked ‘Still I Rise’ because it encourages one to rise above difficulty. The ‘voice’ was one of a kind. The kind that realises its own potential and speaks with confidence that it will no longer be pushed into the dark allies of submissiveness. 

An eagle-eyed person who soared above the forces of racism and sexism, Angelou’s writing explored the ideas of individuality, self and the spirit of life through the eyes of race, sex, family and community. She was not only an inspiration to thousands of women across the world, she was also like a mother-figure to hip-hop artistes and rappers, who tried to follow her poetry. Kanye West went on to describe her beauty as “Like Michelangelo painted a portrait of Maya Angelou”.

Angelou was initially famous for her poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, a memoir of her poor upbringing in Arkansas, in USA’s Deep South – it told the story of her life till the age of 17, when her parents had divorced and she was sent to live with her grandmother. She and her brother arrived at the station in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, with wrist tags that said “To whom it may concern”. Such was the irony of life. It went on to become one of the first autobiographies by an African-American writer to have gathered a huge general readership.  “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,” Ms. Angelou wrote in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

You have taught so many of us caged birds to sing of freedom. Toodle-doo Maya Angelou.



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