by Mumia Abu Jamal
Maya Angelou had to be the name of a poet. It is too perfect, too lyrical to fit any other personality. Born on April 4, 1928, as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, she blazed an incandescent streak across the heavens as the voice of memory – as poet, actress, author and activist.
She taught generations of students as an honored professor of literature. As a young woman, she struck the boards as an African dancer. And she was a close friend and colleague of Malcolm X, working briefly as a leading member of his post-Nation of Islam grouping, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
During the early ‘60s presidency of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana attracted activists from around the world, especially Black Americans. Maya Angelou would be among them, making West Africa her home. There she would meet Malcolm again, tanned dark by the African sun, goateed and fresh from his Hajj to Mecca, appearing at her door.
The assassination of Malcolm X seemed to be a turning point in her life, for it seemed like the work of crazy people, she said. She got a call while visiting a relative in San Francisco as the news of Malcolm’s fate numbed her into shock.
Her brother appeared at the house unbidden and drove her away. As they walked the city’s Black district, then the Fillmore,* the conversation was about Malcolm, but decidedly negative. “He got what he deserved,” said one. “Serves him right,” said another. Her brother turned to her and said, “These are the people that man died for.”
She would thereafter write, mother, teach and mentor. Her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a tale of childhood betrayal, vengeance and death, would be joined by works of poetic wonder, light and hope.
Maya Angelou had to be the name of a poet. It is too perfect, too lyrical to fit any other personality.
Her majestic contralto would lend a presidential inauguration a nobility it did not deserve when she delivered “On the Pulse of the Morning,” reciting, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again.” It seemed more fitting for her own extraordinary life.
She is the mother of Guy Johnson, a brilliant novelist.
© Copyright 2014 Mumia Abu-Jamal. Read Mumia’s latest book, “The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America,” co-authored by Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill, available from Third World Press, TWPBooks.com. Keep updated at www.freemumia.com. For Mumia’s commentaries, visit www.prisonradio.org. For recent interviews with Mumia, visit www.blockreportradio.com. Encourage the media to publish and broadcast Mumia’s commentaries and interviews. Send our brotha some love and light: Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM 8335, SCI–Mahanoy, 301 Morea Road, Frackville, PA 17932. This story was transcribed by Adrian McKinney.
*Editor’s note: In a tribute to Maya Angelou, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee wrote: “Her ties to our City were also deep, having lived in San Francisco where she wrote about her experiences. She grew up in the Fillmore District, graduated from Mission High School, studied dance and drama, and became the first African-American female street car conductor in San Francisco.”
Rest in poetry, Mama Maya: a tribute to Warrior Poet Maya Angelou
by Tiny (Lisa Gray-Garcia), daughter of Dee
“We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.” – “Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119” in the Paris Review (1990)
At 11, when so much of life fell apart for me and everything I thought I knew became dangerous and violent, my mama-teacher gave me “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and with every page turned I saw myself and I felt words and I dreamed images and I truly learned how it’s possible to write so much beauty out of so much pain.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – “Letter to My Daughter,” a book of essays (2009)
And then after so much, I was incarcerated for me and mama being houseless. Both of us seemed to fall apart, unable to pull ourselves up this time. But we did, knowing that if we could make it, we could begin to make some essential change, somehow.
“The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.” – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”
This is when my mama began seeking out and learning back her own stolen pre-colonial Black-Raza and womens’ herstory, sitting in on classes taught by other fierce African warrior women and men like Dr. Chinosole, Ericka Huggins and Dr. Wade Nobles.
Me and mama began to read other great writers, like Toni Morrison, Zora Neal Hurston and Luis Rodriguez – bringing us words and images of liberation, revolution and transformation.
“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.” – Maya Angelou
Eventually, after more unbelievable struggles, too many to mention or reflect upon, me and mama launched the poor people-led, indigenous people-led movement that is POOR Magazine/Prensa POBRE, the words of inspiring fire that are Maya – always acting as a fountain of hope for both of us.
Whenever we felt beat down by the immensity of our life nightmare, we reflected upon her survival through rape as a child, racism in Amerikkka and self-imposed silence, only to realize that these experiences, no matter how horrible, were also her art. And, like Uncle Al Robles, ancestor board member of POOR, said, “Your struggle is the best part of your art, and your art is the best part of your struggle.”
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” – Maya Angelou
From the beginning of POOR, we also dreamed, visioned and hoped for change led by us po’ folks, landless people’s movement in the stolen indigenous land that is Turtle Island. This deep tissue change, embedded with art, poetry and humility, was always rooted first in decolonization. This is what we call Homefulness.
To this day, beyond all the false borders, institutional cages and brutal systems that keep po’ folks poor and oppressed all across Mama Earth, we are determined to manifest a vision of change and resistance rooted in art, poetry and liberation. We have beautiful women warriors like Mama Maya and Mama Dee to thank for this. We walk in humility on their strong shoulders.
Ase, Mama Maya from your POOR Magazine family; rest in poetry.
Tiny – or Lisa Gray-Garcia – is co-founder with her Mama Dee and co-editor with Tony Robles of POOR Magazine and its many projects and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America,” published by City Lights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.tinygraygarcia.com and www.racepovertymediajustice.org.
Five things about Maya Angelou that most people won’t talk about
Maya Angelou, the esteemed poet, writer and actress, died Wednesday in her Winston-Salem home. The literary giant, most known for her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and “Phenomenal Woman,” a collection of poetry, was one of the foremost African-American writers and thinkers of her time.
But society often forgets her legacy as a fierce civil rights activist and someone who did not shy away from political controversy. Here are five facts you should know about Maya Angelou, the freedom fighter.
- Angelou was a close associate with Malcolm X prior to his assassination and had plans to start a new effort with him to advance African-American rights. According to Angelou, she planned to jump-start the Organization of Afro-American Unity with Malcolm X. The two intended to vocalize the issues plaguing Black people in the U.S. to the United Nations, with the hope that the international body would assist in their struggle.
- Angelou was a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SCLC, an organization founded by Martin Luther King which preached nonviolence, was instrumental in arranging protests and voter registration drives. Before becoming a member, she arranged the “Cabaret for Freedom,” a five-week show that raised money for the organization. After the play’s success, she was asked by Bayard Rustin to become the Northern coordinator of the SCLC and was instrumental in fundraising and promoting the organization’s mission.
- Angelou supported Cuban leader Fidel Castro, despite his rivalry with U.S. leaders. She once wrote, “Of course, Castro never had called himself white, so he was OK from the git. Anyhow, America hated Russians, and as Black people often said, ‘Wasn’t no Communist country that put my grandpapa in slavery. Wasn’t no Communist lynched my papa or raped my mama.’” Her commentary aligned with Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial sentiments, according to which people of color – particularly those in the African Diaspora – identified their struggles as part of one larger, systemic fight.
- Angelou was a staunch advocate for marriage equality. Angelou personally called New York Democratic state Sen. Shirley Huntley to voice her support of same-sex marriage, which the state was considering and the senator opposed. During the call she said, “To love someone takes a lot of courage. So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person’?” Huntley ended up voting for the measure.
- Angelou made a strong moral case for action to recover the kidnapped Nigerian school girls. Angelou never lost her commitment to social justice. Earlier this month, she tweeted about the kidnapped girls in Nigeria: “Our future is threatened by the robbing of these young women’s future. We must have our darlings back so that we can help them to heal.”
Carimah Townes is a special assistant for ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and interned with the communications and development teams at Vital Voices Global Partnership. She can be reached via Twitter @CarimahWheat. This story first appeared on ThinkProgress.