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Maya Angelou

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The author dies at 86 and we remember how she made history

The author and activist Maya Angelou passed away earlier today at the age of 86. Her last tweet was a beautifully apt, “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.” Angelou had made history with her memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which became the first bestselling non-fiction book by an African-American woman.

Angelou’s writing became known for its candid portrayal of the racial segregation and tensions she witnessed and experienced as a child. Her writing centred around the idea of overcoming insurmountable obstacles whatever their nature, be they racial, sexual, emotional or psychological. One of our favourite quotes of hers is “I love to see a young girl go out and grab life by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”

Born in 1928, Angelou famoulsy lived a disrupted childhood, frequently on the road, which she most recently recollected in her 7th memoir Mom And Me And Mom. Aged 7 she was one of the key witnesses in a trial against her mother’s then partner, who was on trial for raping her. She vividly describes the key moment when she witnessed the man later being chased down and murdered by a crowd upon being released from prison, an event that led Angelou to stop speaking for close to 6 years.

A life-long civil rights activist, she was a protege of James Baldwin’s and had met Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr several times, as well as being a prominent member of the Harlem Writers Guild. One of her most prominent proteges and admirers has been Oprah Winfrey.

In one of her last interviews given to Time, she talked about how her next book, her 23rd book, was going to take all of her to write. A bastion of strength and humour til the end, it seems only appropriate to remember her with one of her best-loved poems.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna

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