Hearing of Maya Angelou’s death reminded me of a trip to Chicago 20 years ago. As I wandered along a main street, I saw a queue of people outside a bookshop. There was a sense of excitement about the crowd that drew me in. I squeezed through the mass, curious as to what was the attraction and found myself in front of Maya Angelou. I knew of her through “I Know How the Caged Birds Sing”, but what I did not appreciate until I came close to her was the love she generated, by dint of her personality. She was warm and welcoming to those who brought their books up to her. Her voice was loud, and where some book signings often have a sense of hushed reverence, this one had a sense of people united in a relationship with the author. Maya’s laughter rippled through the store, and it was contagious.
What had drawn people in was the knowledge that this woman had faced difficulties that would have crushed many of us, and yet in the words of her poem “And still I rise”. Born into poverty in Missouri, raised by a grandmother after her parents separated, raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend, and turned mute for several years by the murder of her rapist by a relative, she emerged as one of the most influential women in American. The woman who spoke at Bill’s Clinton inauguration, who became a Professor of American Studies, who wrote books and appeared in films, who won Grammy awards for her reading of her poems was a woman who used her intellect, humanity and courage to rise beyond the conditions of her beginnings.
Maya Angelou was unique, but she modelled qualities which we can all aspire to. She achieved so much because as she said in her poem On Aging: “My life has been long, and believing that life loves the living of it, I have dared to try many things sometimes trembling, but daring still”.
What holds so many of us back is the fear of that trembling, which prevents the daring. Angelou challenges us to accept the trembling as the price of living a fulfilling life.