Maya Angelou: A Personal Reflection

Published on Thursday, June 12th, 2014

by John R. Deitrick, Professor of English, Becker College

Becker College Faculty, John Deitrick 120 × 180What do you say about a woman for whom so much has already been said—not just after her death, but also during her life?

More brilliant than a field of yellow daffodils at their brightest peak in a field of spring green, more exciting than Halley’s Comet, poet Maya Angelou lit up whatever room she entered with a presence only royalty could command.

Although I was never fortunate enough to be in one of those rooms, I would have given much to have had that opportunity.

I have had to settle for less, but when it comes to Angelou, less “than total” is still, in the words of poet A.R. Ammons, “a bucketful of radiant toys!”  Whenever I learned she was to make a television appearance, I would tune in.  Always, I had that sense of excitement and anticipation in the run up to her appearance.  She never disappointed: wise and compassionate, loving and generous; she had a rich sense of humor and a full-bodied laugh that was just as rich.  She brought joy and happiness wherever she went, despite—or maybe, in part, because of all the suffering she lived through and witnessed over the course of her long life.

Thinking back to Angelou’s first and most famous memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I am reminded of one of my favorite short stories, “A Worn Path,” by Eudora Welty.  The story’s protagonist is Phoenix Jackson, a very old, seemingly frail Southern black woman living in Mississippi.  In the story, we find her making an arduous journey from her home to Natchez, one she has made many times before, to get medicine for her sickly grandchild.  The path she travels is fraught with peril–treacherous and challenging—but she endures; out of undying love for her little grandson, she does what she has to do.  I wish someone had thought to write a screenplay for this story and cast Angelou as Phoenix Jackson.

Phoenix, the fictional character, and Maya, the real woman, represent endurance, quiet strength, and, most of all, the magnanimous love that enables one to transcend all pain.

Angelou has said, “All my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated.’”  She walked her talk; she never let herself be defeated.  One of her poems, “Still I Rise,” offers these lines:  “You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise,” and rise she did, again and again and again.