R.I.P. Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

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Maya Angelou dances with the late poet Amiri Baraka at Langston Hughes’ 89th birthday celebration in 1991. Photo by Chester Higgins Jr. for the New York Times.

by Gautham Nagesh

HYDERABAD, India—It has been a while since I last wrote here, my apologies.

I could offer the standard excuses, but there’s really just one reason: I landed my dream job last year, and it has left me no time for anything else. The past month in particular has been an unrelenting stream of news, leaving every other part of my life neglected. This vacation and the chance to rest and recharge couldn’t have come at a better time.

I have always struggled to describe what we do here at Stiff Jab. Put simply, we write about fighting, and try to find beauty in what is clearly an ugly spectacle, designed to appeal to our basest instincts. Whether it’s Sarah documenting the trials of women trying to break into a man’s world, or me simply bearing witness to battles fought by fighters that will never reach the limelight, we try to capture how the heat of battle brings out the best in these men and women, who enter the ring almost naked and depart completely exposed, in victory or defeat.

Fighters are remarkable human beings. Fighters drag themselves from meager conditions with little more than their hands and years of sweat. It is a long, lonely road, and almost none of them find success. Even those that reach the top must spent years toiling anonymously, placing full faith in their discipline and natural gifts and hoping it’s enough to secure their future. And even for the best, their moment is almost always just that; a glorious instant in time, followed by a slow descent back to where they started.

Of course, a few select champions manage to defy all that. They somehow along the way become more than just a sack of meat and bones, but something much larger, a testament to the incredible potential of the human spirit. They inspire us, and expand our vision of what life can hold for all of us. They make us believe in ourselves, and in abilities we never knew we had. 

By any measure, Maya Angelou was a fighter and a champion. Her grandness was such that it cannot be encapsulated by mere titles like poet or author. Maya Angelou was much more. She was living proof that no matter how many times a woman has been knocked down to the canvas, no matter how deeply the odds are stacked against her, she retains a puncher’s chance.

Ms. Angelou rose from a background defined by crippling racism, trauma, and displacement, yet somehow managed to spend her life showing all of us just how much life can be jammed into 86 years. She fought proudly in the ring for over five decades, refusing to capitulate no matter what. If the outpouring of grief and love today is any indication, her arms should be raised in victory for eternity.

I never met Maya Angelou, nor did I have the privilege of hearing her speak live. It has been 15 years since I last read her books, and roughly two decades since they were my first literary influence. I was exposed to I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings at age 10, far too young, and read the first four volumes of her memoir before reaching 6th grade. It is fair to say the graphic and gripping content of the books traumatized me, and forced me to confront at a young age the reality that the world is cruel and dangerous place.

Yet somehow, that is not the message that stayed with me from the books. What astonished me most about Ms. Angelou’s tale, what has turned those dog-eared paperbacks into treasures that I carry to every new household, even as my tastes matured, was the simple fact that they were real. How any person could live so richly and have a hand in seemingly every major black movement in the 20th century simply astonished me. As a skinny Indian kid growing up in Jackson, Michigan, I had never realized that life was so pregnant with possibility, or that one person could be capable of so much.

From Malcolm X to Langston Hughes to Alvin Ailey to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, Maya Angelou crossed paths with every giant of the Civil Rights Movement, and left a legacy of her own to match anyone else’s. Her whole was much greater than the sum of her parts, and we will never be able to quantify her influence. How many women found courage after reading her write about life as a young, single mother? How many soldiers have taken up the Cause after hearing her speak? How many students have questioned the cruelty of our modern world after reading her poems?

We do not know, and we likely never will. I only know that here, across the globe, life stood still this afternoon as we mourned a giant, a woman the likes of whom may never be seen again. All I can offer is my own testament: that even as a 12-year-old boy, Ms. Angelou’s writing stuck to the roof of my mouth like the candy she described so lovingly in her grandmother’s country store.

Even at that young age, those books ruined any chance I would follow one of the acceptable paths laid out by my parents. From then on, my only interest was in somehow fashioning for myself a life that resembled a mere slice of Ms. Angelou’s. A life dedicated to exposing unsaid truths, and capturing beauty where most see only misery and decay. For a long time, I had no idea how to pursue that goal; I only hoped the road would present itself.

It took me years  to figure out that Ms. Angelou had already given me the answer. So I called home from my summer sublet in the West Village after freshman year of college, and told my parents that I didn’t want to be a doctor, or banker or anything useful. I wanted to write. Here I am a decade later, a working journalist, but also still a struggling, unpublished fiction writer, who wonders at times whether the world cares what I have to say.

It has been years since I last dusted off the manuscript and tried to complete my novel, even though I finally solved the ending last year. At times I question whether I will ever finish, and if anyone will care if I do. But then I think of how much more Ms. Angelou overcame in her life, and how many different paths she traveled, never confined to a single career or label. And I know that life still holds endless promise, whether you’re 30, 60, or 86, as Ms. Angelou was when she died on Wednesday morning. 

And still, she rises. Thank you, Maya Angelou for lighting our world for as long as you did. Rest in peace.

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    over on stiffjab, panda wrote a fitting memorial to Maya Angelou (everlasting be her memory):
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