How Maya Angelou became the voice of America

Laura Miller in Salon:

Maya_angelou4-620x412When Maya Angelou published her memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in 1970, it was not the first first-person account of an African-American woman’s life, but it was the first of a new breed of unflinchingly honest ones. In addition to offering a powerful testimony to the effect of racism on her childhood (the first of six volumes of autobiography, the book covers Angelou’s life from age 3 to 17), “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” dared to speak of the particular hardships suffered by black women within their own community; Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7 and successfully testified against the man in court, although this trauma was followed by a five-year period of speechlessness. In the following decades, the aftermath of the civil rights movement, Angelou’s fearlessness helped pioneer a literary blossoming for African-American women that would encompass such figures as Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

…As the years went by, Angelou’s poetry and public statements increasingly moved toward that most popular of all American literary forms, the uplifting and inspiring maxim. No doubt channeling the grandmother whose industry, self-reliance and ambition she admired so much, she licensed her name to a line of Hallmark cards. The poetry world might frown on such popularization, but the public adored her and found in her words both wisdom and comfort. Angelou’s is a style that lends itself well to the realm of social media, with its informal habit of sharing and passing along quotations and mottos, so it’s no surprise she maintained an active Twitter feed up until five days before her death. Her last message — “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God” — conveys the boundless warmth, hope and serenity that made her so beloved.

More here.