So, I was crying in the supermarket car park today. Admittedly I’m quite an emotional person and it’s not that hard to make me cry in the first 36 hours after a nightshift, but Maya Angelou’s death really hit me. I sat scrolling through Twitter looking at the tributes that were pouring in to her from all sorts of people – from Joe Bloggs on the street to statesmen and everything in between – with tears in my eyes and no tissues to mop them up with.
I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings when I was in my final year of A Levels. In English Literature we were comparing Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and it was on the suggested further reading list – which, being a book geek, I worked my way through. And her book was the one on that list that touched me more than any other.
I was a white, middle-class teenager from rural England. I’d heard about racism. I’d even studied the Civil Rights movement in GCSE History. Back in Judy Blume reading days I’d first come across segregation in Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself. I’d studied To Kill A Mockingbird in GCSE English. But it was Maya Angelou’s writing that really brought home to me the reality of what people had suffered, how they were persecuted just for the colour of their skin and how they had fought for rights that I took for granted – rights that it hadn’t even occurred to me that it was possible not to have. And it had happened in living memory. It’s still within living memory.
After I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I went out and bought the next book of her autobiography – and the next and the next and so on. The final volume – A Song Flung Up To Heaven – came out during this period and I bought it, in hardback, because I was so desperate to find out what happened next. And I never bought hardbacks – I didn’t have a lot of spare cash and it wouldn’t match my paperbacks – but I didn’t care. Her writing meant that much to me.
There have been a lot of her quotes posted on Twitter and elsewhere since she died, but her own last tweet was only a few days ago and it is great and it is wise:
For all the hardships and heartbreaks of her life, her writing was joyous. She wasn’t bitter – although at times she was angry – she rose above and wanted to make a difference and she did, she has. She crammed so much into her life that it really did need all those volumes of autobiography to tell it. If it had been a novel, you would have said it was too far-fetched. Whenever I saw her on the TV or in a video, she was a force of nature, one of those people who you thought would live forever – and through her writing, she will.
Other people will be able to say all this and more much more eloquently than I have, but I couldn’t not say something about the death of someone whose writing and outlook on life had had such an impact on me. I’m off to read her whole story again and to give thanks for a life so well lived.