On The Late Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was not my favorite author. I respected her as an activist, and I knew that she was a prolific author. I’d seen interviews, heard quotes. Her voice was soothing, and her optimism was endlessly quote-able. But, when faced with my penultimate high school reading list, I was more drawn to the pithy cynicism of Kurt Vonnegut than the poetic platitudes I read in Angelou.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was required reading in my high school English class, and I remember finding the memoir hard to swallow. It seemed saccharine, unbelievable, over-hyped. Too perfect. Angelou seemed to have been living her life with a memoir in mind: the childhood trauma, the symbolic loss of a voice, the activism and triumph. I couldn’t accept that the poetry of her life was natural, was anything but a pretension on her part.

But today, with her death—and with the inevitable flooding of tributes to her on social media—I was finally able to see the poetry of Angelou’s life for what it was. Reading one of her poems, I realized that yes, Angelou had deigned to remember her life with all the pretentious rhyme of Being Meaningful and Having A Message. But we all attempt to construct our lives into meaningful narratives. The rhyme scheme, which was an essential part of what resonated with me in the poem, was an example of the same sort of emphasis on salient details that had turned me off when reading Angelou’s memoir as a teen. Seeing that poem in the context of memorializing a great woman, noticing its artifice without being turned off by it, helped me re-imagine the author of the memoir I’d so readily dismissed in my younger years.

I don’t believe it’s right to glorify the dead. I believe we honor them more by remembering them how they truly were. In some cases, however, it takes a person’s death to finally allow us to realize who that person was. When we can see the person’s life as a discrete thing, with a start and a finish, we can comprehend its narrative. And, now that Maya Angelou’s life has ended, I can finally begin to see how the woman I respected for what she did with her life might also be a woman I could respect for the way she wrote about that life.

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