The recent passing of one of America’ most notable Renaissance women has the intellectual and literary communities in fervent discussion regarding the widespread influence of her enormous body of work. Words like “accomplished” and “prolific” are vast understatements of the extent of Maya Angelou’s creative output. Poet, essayist, author, screenwriter, actress, journalist, director, composer, dancer, social activist, educator, and lecturer—this lengthy list is probably still an inadequate enumeration of the many occupations that can be ascribed to her.
We often do renowned individuals a disservice by reducing them to the sum total of their public achievements. But a person is more than his work. To truly honor Maya Angelou’s memory requires an appreciation of her humanity alongside—and perhaps even prior to—an admiration for her as an author.
This is not to downplay Angelou’s many cultural contributions: her innovation of the autobiographical genre, her honest representation of the African American condition, her advocacy for the dignity of women, her organizational efforts in favor of the Civil Rights Movement, and her ability to capture the spirit of a nation in “On the Pulse of Morning.” But there is something greater here. Angelou’s very life and experience are an embodiment of a universal principle that transcends time, race and geography: the existence and immutability of the soul.
Angelou’s triumph over the debilitating effects of rape, guilt, familial dysfunction, and poverty demonstrates that there is a powerful spiritual quality in Man that extends beyond his biological components and environment. That men and women are not mere products of their time and society, victims to history and unchangeable social structures. Angelou’s story is a case for free will, for the idea that people are autonomous agents capable of creating a world of peace and prosperity out of an inheritance of hate and violence. It is a case for personal responsibility based on the notion that each of us holds the power to do good and evil in his own hands.
Thus, Angelou’s life itself was an argument for the country she loved and served, a country founded on the principles of human freedom, moral responsibility and the worth of the individual. Those principles pervade the story of the young girl who discovers the courage to speak again and the young single mother striving to provide her son with a wholesome life, just as they pervade the heroic battles for liberty that are at the forefront of America’s heritage.
For helping us better understand and appreciate the nature of our humanity with all its frailties, folly, triumphs, and joy, we commend Maya Angelou—certain that she is lighting up the hereafter as she did our lives.