Maya Angelou, before we all knew her: Matt's Memo

Amiri Baraka dances with Maya Angelou in 1991.

The black and white photos cast fresh light on a singer, a writer and dancer. They convey confidence, intensity and joy in a gifted woman who drank every drop from the cup. In the final quarter of her life, Maya Angelou cast a familiar image of silver hair, a face filled with wisdom and a voice of unmistakable timbre. But, before Angelou achieved that lofty position she had rightfully earned, this trail blazing artist exuded resilience, energy and fearlessness.

We know Maya Angelou as the poet decorated by presidents. We know Maya Angelou as a writer deified by Oprah. We know Maya Angelou as an autobiographer who claimed "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings". We did not all know the remarkable path she walked before finding herself in that rarified air. Until this morning, when we learned she had passed away at the age of 86.

I spent part of the afternoon talking with Dr. Herbert Ruffin, a professor of African-American Studies at Syracuse University. He sat in his well worn leather chair in an office barely large enough the fit his desk, his books and a guest interested in his view of where Maya Angelou fits in the last century of American history. Ruffin raised concern that we would only remember the sanitized version of Angelou, the one with the face that became familiar in the history making television mini-series "Roots" in 1977. The one that followed in the footsteps of Robert Frost in reciting her poetic work for President Bill Clinton's first inaugural.

Ruffin first pointed out that she is not the only voice of an era who has passed away this year. He included Amiri Baraka who died in January and is seen dancing with Angelou in a 1991 photo as part of this blog. Ruffin mentioned Langston Hughes who had passed a generation before.

The professor's focus of study and writing specifically targets the black experience on the west coast. His latest book details the influences of the Olympic athletes who in 1968 took to the podium in Mexico City and offered the world a fist a symbol of Black Power. Those athletes attending San Jose State University which had become a cauldron of provocative thought during the 1960's, not just for the black students who were nearly all athletes, but also for white liberal thinkers who were buying into the freedom movement.

Some of the inspiration for this revolutionary thought came from the writings of a fairly young Maya Angelou. She had not yet penned her 1969 benchmark memoir, but she was acceptable reading on college campuses during the Civil Rights struggle. She gave voice to the past of her childhood growing up in the Jim Crow south while also offering reason for hope and change.

Ruffin enlightened by pointing out Angelou had gifts that stretched beyond her artistic talent of singing, dancing and writing poetry. She held a leadership role in New York City for Dr.. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She influenced the development of Malcom X before his 1965 assassination. She mixed and shared ideas at a time when black women were not at the forefront.

The professor shied away from saying Angelou provides respite and hope to black families of today who are struggling to find work or put food on the table. He knows many do not have the time to be worried about loftier ideas than living day to day. But, he does acknowledge her lofty position for middle class black families who have something and are reaching for more. And, just as importantly, Maya Angelou built a bridge for white America to better understand the black experience and find commonality in the humanity we all share.

As we learned of the death of the 86 year old grandmotherly figure we remember her voice weakened and her body failing. But, the death of Maya Angelou provides opportunity to reach back into her writings, her uniquely American experience and learn more about the woman in those black and white photos. She found words to articulate life in a way few can. She could do it because she lived the richest of lives along the way.


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