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January 22, 2019

Writers are activists

Maya Angelou died and she is to be buried today.  Over Easter, I had dinner with my brother and his wife and we were discussing activists when he said that I am not an activist.

I let the comment slide because it was not the point of the conversation but for those of you who, like my brother, think writers are not activists, I invite you Google anything by Maya Angelou and revisit your opinion.

Maya Angelou was born in 1928 at a time when black people had to walk in the drain or cross the street if a white person approached them.  Schools, buses and all public institutions were segregated.

Angelou was raised by her grandparents in the south but moved to California to be with her mother in her late teens.  She survived being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight, got pregnant at 17 and had her only child and son.

As a young adult, she worked as a cook, a prostitute, a dancer and singer and even managed a brothel.  She would focus on dance until she was 31 when a friend suggested that she shift to writing.

Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and got published for the first time.  Around this time, she met Martin Luther King, Jr. and started fundraising for the Civil Rights movement.

In 1961 she met and fell in love with South African activist Vusumzi Make and they moved to Egypt where she was an associate editor for The Arab Observer.  When that relationship ended she moved to Ghana with her son and it was here that she met and befriended Malcolm X in in 1965.

She never earned a college degree but received 30 honorary degrees from many universities around the world. This prolific artist wrote more than 10 books, movies, plays, documentaries and even released an album called Miss Calypso.  Angelou directed the movie Down in the Delta and wrote all the poetry for the movie Poetic Justice which starred Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur.

I could go on and on about Maya Angelou but I will stop there and invite you to look her up and read about the amazing things she managed to do in 80 years.

Reading about her life and what she was able to do reminds me that life is long and we have the opportunity to achieve much; but that you can only achieve much if you live like life is short.  To me Maya Angelou is a beacon who did not pretend to be anything that what she was not.

She talked about what some might call her shameful past – surviving rape, being a prostitute – with the same candor that she applied to her writing. I think her greatest act of activism was being seen and heard.

When the failures and the successes of one woman are seen and heard, they lead to conversation either between women, or just between a single woman’s heart and mind.

These failures and successes give permission and freedom to other women to venture out and try their own thing; they give courage and as she said, “courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any other virtue.”


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