Her deep liquid voice could fill the largest of ballrooms. That’s the memory I have of Maya Angelou, who spoke and sang at an author’s breakfast in Miami Beach in 1993, a featured writer at the annual convention of American booksellers. I couldn’t tell you offhand who else was on that program, but at that moment Angelou, who died on Tuesday at the age of 86, was at the height of her magnetic powers.
Earlier that year, she had the formidable duty of writing and reading a poem for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She was only the second poet to have the honor, following Robert Frost’s appearance for President John F. Kennedy in 1960. If hers was not one of the greatest of poems, it certainly amounted to a grand moment.
A native of St. Louis, a child of Arkansas and California, a self-invented and scrappy adventurer in life and, eventually, literature, Angelou spoke directly to the hearts of millions of readers around the globe. In telling her own story in poetry and over the course of a series of memoirs, beginning with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in 1970, she reflected her readers’ wounds and bolstered their dreams.
“You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies,” reads a line from one of her most popular poems, “And Still I Rise.” “You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
One of the most inspiring of authors, her success at reaching people led to a long association with Hallmark in Kansas City, which teamed with her on a line of cards and other products and engaged her in movie projects.
“I think courage is the most important of all the virtues,” Angelou told The Star’s Ed Eveld just last week — in advance of her scheduled appearance on June 10 at the Kauffman Center. “Without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can be anything erratically — generous, kind. Without courage, people can shame you and blame you.”
As she emerged from a colorful, wandering life in the 1940s and ‘50s, she began to aim her performing talent towards writing. She landed in New York in 1959 and joined the Harlem Writers Guild. Any writer can appreciate the advice she learned there, as she once put it: “Write each sentence over and over again, until it seems you’ve used every combination possible, then write it again.”
It’s not only a lesson for writing, it’s metaphorically one of Angelou’s many well-earned lessons for living.