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Maya Angelou: An Enigma Never to Be Forgotten

By Eric Elezuo

Character is a virtue, and only a few can boast of it in overflowing quantity. One of such few is celebrated poet and human rights activist whose stock in trade dovetails into many endeavours, Maya Angelou.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, as the second child of Bailey Johnson and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, Maya Angelou was many things woven in one. In fact, even in death which occurred on May 28, 2014, her personality still occupies a large space in the heart of humanity and the society.

As a growing child, Maya was very attached to her brother, owing to an extent the ‘calamitous marriage’ between their parents. In fact, it was her brother, who fondly nicknamed her Maya, derived from ‘My’ or ‘Mya Sister’

Angelou’s ability to face the storms developed early in life and manifested as she grew up. At a age of three when her parents marriage ended, she was forced to travel by train in the company of her brother, who was just four to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson.

Summarising her life in a brief, Linguist John McWhorter in The New Republic wrote: “And Angelou’s life has certainly been a full one: from the hardscrabble Depression era South to pimp, prostitute, supper club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, and eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King and Malcolm, Billie Holiday, and Abbey Lincoln.”
She was an accomplished American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist, who has seven published autobiographies to her credit, in addition to three books of essays, several books of poetry, as well as a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years.
In her lifetime, Angelou received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees., and is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim. Here is a stanza from the poem:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.
The poem, considered a defense of black culture, shot her to limelight, and she became a respected spokesperson for black people and women. Her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide. She made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing and expanding the genre. Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family and travel.

 

A workaholic of great standard, from the 1990s, Angelou made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Angelou’s goods works live behind her, and she has been honoured in many quarters including the establishment of the Maya Angelou Project, which her grandson, superintend over as the President.

In one swift eulogy, the HEN Foundation, joined millions of the world population in bringing the memories of the one who could easily be referred as a legend to life. In his address, the Founder of the Foundation, Mr. Jimmy O. Eniola spared no words in describing the personality of Angelou. The excerpt of his address is as follows:

“I stand before you as proud humanitarian ambassador of a country that has produced the first black Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka; and world-acclaimed writer, Professor Chinua Achebe, and many other academicians that have identified with the works of Madame Maya Angelou. I am delighted to inform you that our foundation is on the exciting verge of immortalizing this humanitarian icon by establishing a permanent Center in Nigeria in memory of Dr. Maya Angelou. This Center, apart from providing the opportunity for an exchange program between Nigeria and the United States, will also be a center where people can engage in research and learning on gender equality, and the evils of discrimination, human trafficking and sexual abuse. Already, we have donated some items that were hand-crafted by our empowered youth in Nigeria to The Maya Angelou Project. These include beads, handfans, necklaces, earrings and our traditional African Aso-oke fabrics and attires. We are proud to acknowledge that Dr. Maya Angelou’s lifetime work and cause has been a veritable source of inspiration to us at HEN Foundation. The impact and contribution of Dr. Maya Angelou’s on the African continent can never be overestimated. You will all recall that she spent a substantial part of her life engaging in the Pan-African Movement in both Egypt and Ghana. Today we are proud to admit that her work has impacted positively on the lives of millions of African citizens,” Eniola said.

HEN Foundation was founded as a memorial to Eniola’s late mother, with the objectives of empowering the needy with basic healthcare and access to basic education.

Among its many humanitarian jobs, the Foundation has made over 500 pupils in a public primary and secondary school in Nigeria beneficiaries of HEN Foundation’s Mathematics Skill Pilot Program. Additionally, over 800 students in the inner city of Lagos State, Nigeria, benefited from the free University entry forms and free tutorial classes for the University Matriculation Examination.

Also, in 2017, HEN Foundation conducted a free Cancer Screening Exercise for over 1,000 patients, in collaboration with the University of Ibadan Cancer Research Center and the Femi Gbajabiamila Foundation at the Akerele Healthcare Center, Surulere, Lagos, at which valuable medical equipment was donated to both the cancer research center and the healthcare center. Only three days ago, a program in Nigeria to mark the International Girl’s Day was supported by Hen Foundation with the announcement of educational scholarships for three students. The Foundation is busy following the basic footsteps of Maya Angelou.

Highly soft and kind-hearted, Maya Angelou found it in her heart not only to weep on the death of one who raped her as a teenager but lost her voice in the process. She is quoted as saying: “If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.”

A writer, Gary Younge, in 2009 revealed that “To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has.”

Much as she faced the greatest of challenges, she made the best of life, and came out victorious. Her life therefore, is a challenge to as many who thinks they have reached their tethers end; those who think they have suffered a lot and even those who lingering between redundancy and taking a step.

Angelou was married to Tosh Angelos in 1951, but the marriage ended in 1954. She had a son when she was 17 named Glyde. But he changed his name to Guy Johnson later. w

In 2013, at the age of 85, Angelou published the seventh volume of autobiography in her series, titled Mom & Me & Mom, which focuses on her relationship with her mother.

Here are a few of the quotes Angelou is known for:

I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music –1999

I also wear a hat or a very tightly pulled head tie when I write. I suppose I hope by doing that I will keep my brains from seeping out of my scalp and running in great gray blobs down my neck, into my ears, and over my face – 1984
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
Nothing so frightens me as writing, but nothing so satisfies me. It’s like a swimmer in the [English] Channel: you face the stingrays and waves and cold and grease, and finally you reach the other shore, and you put your foot on the ground—Aaaahhhh! –1989
Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. She was found by her nurse. During her memorial service at Wake Forest University, her son Guy Johnson stated that despite being in constant pain due to her dancing career and respiratory failure, she wrote four books during the last ten years of her life. He said, “She left this mortal plane with no loss of acuity and no loss in comprehension.”

 

Angelou is survived by her son, Guy, one grandson and two great grandchildren among a host of world followers, who call her mother and follow her exemplary footsteps.

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