I credit Dr. Maya Angelou as being one of my first influences in literary culture (after Dickens) and certainly as a gateway drug into the dervish dance that is the world of the arts. She is oft quoted as having said:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”
I checked “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” out of the library at Ghana International School in Form 1 or 2 (the 7th or 8th grade) . Thus began my plunge down the literary rabbit hole from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes to Nathan McCall to Toni Morrison. It is true that I have forgotten many of the words that intoxicated my 11-or-so year old mind as I voraciously devoured all but one of the five books that make up Dr. Angelou’s autobiography. I will never, however, forget the wide-eyed wonder her poignant simplicity instilled in me at that tender and formative age. She possessed the gift of a clarity of expression that packs the puissance of a thousand suns and “the certainty of tides”. She calcified my love of the written (and spoken) word –especially that of Poetry–and of the creative habit in its entirety. It is for this reason that she has always been known in my heart as Mama Maya.
Alice B. Toklas admonished “one must get nearer to creation to be able to create”. Mama Maya expressed it thusly:
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have”
And by creativity , she was not only referring to the words we put on paper, or the alchemy of gastronomic experimentation, or the arabesques we draw with our body under the proscenium arch. Dr. Angelou’s entire life was lived as art. She was a self-made woman who “created [her]self”. Dr. Angelou never went to university and was pregnant at 16, delivering her first and only son at 17. But, by the time she breathed her last breath, Maya Angelou had 30-some-odd honourary doctorates to her name and a presidential medal of freedom awarded by President Obama. The number of lives she has touched is evidenced by the outpouring of emotion in reaction to her passing heard the world over. Of creativity and our duty to be as mutable as life is tumultuous she said:
“Because of the routines we follow, we often forget that life is an ongoing adventure. . . Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art: to bring all our energies to each encounter, to remain flexible enough to notice and admit when what we expected to happen did not happen. We need to remember that we are created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.”
A scribbling from over 10 years ago in an old notebook of mine. This has always been one of my favourite pieces by Dr. Angelou. It was one that I was thankful to have found again in 2010/2011. Being a packrat has its merits.
A dancer, a writer, an actress, a singer, a poet, an academician, a philosopher, a philanthropist, a crusader, an autodidact. And, above all, a woman, phenomenally.
“Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs “
No, Dr. Angelou, it does not. Your choreography lives on, Dr. Maya Angelou; your dervish dance lives on. In your memoir, you say you found your kin in the Ewe people of Ghana– that this was the first time you saw women that looked like you, giving you a sense of lineage– and so I bid you farewell as we do in Ewe: dzidzor le nutifafa me, Mama Maya.
Dr. Maya Angelou in traditional Ghanaian garb
“I speak to the black experience , but I am always talking about the human condition–about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and still survive”
– Dr. Maya Angelou