Maya Angelou: Phenomenal woman

By Audrey T. McCluskey | The Herald-Times: Guest Column

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

This guest column was written by Audrey T. McCluskey of Bloomington, professor emerita of African American and African Diaspora Studies, former director of the Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University.

She was a gentle warrior for justice and truth; graceful and elegant in her words, deeds, and spirit. We were privileged to have her among us for 86 years. A generational link to social and political movements of the 1960s that sought to empower black people, Dr. Maya Angelou was a friend of Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

As the people’s poet and wordsmith, she traversed all artificial barriers while hewing to the oral tradition of the black church and women storytellers and sages. Encouraged to write by James Baldwin, she did so with power and passion, but never anger. “You don’t have to be brutal about anything,” she said. 

Yet she was fierce and passionate about the causes she believed in. “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” the black spiritual that became an anthem of the civil rights movement, was a favorite, and her personal credo. When she sang it with her deep, melodious voice, you believed her.

In her more than 30 books, she shared her optimism along with the pain, suffering and childhood silence that she overcame. She took the title of her most renowned book,” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969) from the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, about a caged bird that yearned to be free. 

Banned by some unenlightened school boards, the National Book Award nominee is required reading in enlightened schools. It also served as a gate-opener for gifted black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara.

The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Angelou was a pioneer in many fields, including film. As director of the Black Film Center/ Archive, I interviewed her in 2001 and greeted her during her visits to the university. 

In the interview she discussed her disappointment at not being allowed to direct “Georgia, Georgia” (1972). “ I wrote the screenplay and the music but … a Swedish man who had never shaken hands with a black person directed it.” 

Being, reportedly, the first black woman screenwriter in Hollywood was a breakthrough, but it was almost three decades before Angelou was allowed to direct a major movie, “Down in the Delta” (1998). 

Meanwhile, she continued to act , write and teach. Speaking about teaching, she said, “ I love it! I have an indebtedness to young people and I try to discharge it as honorably as possible because somebody taught me. . . you simply have to do it one way or the other.” She was an early signatory of the Black Film Center/Archive, sending contributions annually. 

A common denominator of her universal appeal was her fun-loving spirit. Her laugh was infectious and deep-throated. 

“Phenomenal Woman,” one of her most-recited poems, indeed, describes her well. 

A few lines near the end of her tribute to Nelson Mandela, “His Day is Done, “ describe our feelings today:

(Her) day is done.
We confess it in tearful voices.
Yet we lift our own to say
Thank You.


Related articles: 

Angelou remembered in Indianapolis: ‘She can only be remembered as bigger than life’

A tribute to Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014), The Indiana News E-Magazine, June 2014