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From Prostitute to Professor: Why Maya Angelou Matters

On Wednesday, professor and activist Dr. Maya Angelou was found dead at her Winston-Salem, N.C. residence. The poet is now silent. And as it is with extraordinary individuals who grace our world, our humanity searches for words that express a deep sense of loss. We reach for fitting accolades to describe the grandeur of a life’s work. These become the moments of legend and mythology. And when they prove inadequate, we return to the place where the search began, sit quietly, and thank God for the gift we observed. 

Dr-Maya-Angelou--pink

Dr. Maya Angelou receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President in 2011. Photo Credit: Public Domain

So often we forget that the greatest among us never asked for a showering of flattery. They waste neither thoughts nor words on the hope of praise that might come from others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, instructed his eulogizer not to mention his three or four hundred awards, but rather to consider a life that sought to help someone.

Dr. Maya Angelou committed us to richer considerations than admiration and celebrity. Life Examined placed us inside the world’s of Erika and Michael, as they pursued answers to life’s most enduring questions. Is there really a God? What is the purpose of life? How can we arrive at happiness? These questions explore even as Psalmist explored, “What is man that God should be mindful of him?” [Psalms 8:4] These are questions that consumed philosophers gathered at the Roman Parthenon. And indeed, questions taken up by St. Augustine in City of God, in his rebuttal to the philosophers.

As this African American writer placed us inside profound quests for meaning, a most appropriate tribute would be to search for meaning in Dr. Maya Angelou’s own existence. That is, why does Dr. Maya Angelou matter?

Answering this question, we can first assert that Dr. Maya Angelou matters in the same way that William Shakespeare matters. That beyond their unique talents, these individuals open windows into our souls. Our darkest fears and most glaring aspirations. Our temptations, loves, and lusts. Dr. Maya Angelou is among the great cloud of witnesses bold enough to expose in mankind a common thread of hidden yearnings. Tensions, good versus evil, that bid for the driver’s seat in our lives. As with Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or Langston Hughes, Dr. Maya Angelou holds up linguistic mirrors that enable us to better see ourselves as individuals. Words that reflect fragile conditions when different religions and values, hues, and nationalities share time and space.

Dr. Maya Angelou moves us away from Hollywood’s blinding glitter by shining a spotlight into our souls. A necessary spotlight in a world that makes constant appeals that we weigh ourselves by the scales of others. Dr. Maya Angelou’s spotlight shines through a kind of virtual world of vicariousness that superimposes its images onto our self-concept. Dr. Maya Angelou matters in each reading that draws us into an introspective critique of virtues and vices. She challenges us to look within. To consider the condition of our own caged bird. And to come to terms with its song and why it sings.

Dr. Maya Angelou likewise matters in times of great uncertainty that pronounce only doom to the hopeless and frustrate the seemingly helpless. Yes, the poet’s journey is one that paused to give words during the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. It is a journey that momentarily stopped-off to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Three Grammys. And nominations for a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize. The journey required a few minutes of respite to receive more than 30 honorary degrees. And we can trace her steps by over 30 health and medical facilities that bear her name.

[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”right” width=”30%”]“I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone …”

— Dr. Maya Angelou[/pullquote]

The American poet laureate leaves a legacy of achievement and esteem of our nation. Such would be expected of an individual born into wealth and family status. But the literary world’s unusual suspect matters wherever life finds one without privileged beginnings. Indeed, her life matters in the courtroom of divine providence as evidence that even human suffering can be redemptive.

Divorce severed her parents’ marriage before Dr. Maya Angelou would enter grade school. Shuffled back-and-forth between homes and cities, she and her siblings were products of familial chaos at a time when divorce was less common. As such, Dr. Maya Angelou matters to every child told that divorce is an insurmountable albatross. A life sentence of one’s inevitable failure. Indeed, failure tempted life at age 14 in her dropping out of school. However, in returning to complete her high school studies, Dr. Maya Angelou likewise matters to troubled teens that ponder dealing drugs as the way out of having made poor educational choices.

The activist Angelou matters to rape victims, gathered at the crossroads of pain and healing. Dr. Maya Angelou once stood at these crossroads, having been raped at age 8 by her mother’s boyfriend (Freeman). She would watch local authorities free the rapist after one day of imprisonment. Live through the murder of the man that violated her at such a tender age. Indeed, Dr. Maya Angelou matters to those who live inside the painful walls of regret. After Freeman’s murder, she would not speak for almost five years, believing her voice had killed Freeman. Five non-speaking years that developed memory skills in a woman who would ultimately learn to speak six languages. 

[pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”30%”]“I’m always disappointed when people don’t live up to their potential. I know that a number of people look down on themselves and consequently on everybody who looks like them.” 

Dr. Maya Angelou[/pullquote]

Seduced at a young age by a lover to sell her body, the former prostitute who became Professor Angelou matters. It matters not only in the university setting but also to those in despair along Skid Road. Dr. Maya Angelou’s journey matters as to what this means to a society that so readily discards its citizens. It matters to every presumptive inclination we have to eternally condemn someone caught-up in circumstances. To our fixation with casting people in concrete cells and throwing away the key. It matters in the moments of our hustle-and-bustle preoccupations that pass people on the street whose lives are hanging in the balance. Is the prostitute we label “ghetto queen” today the phenomenal woman of tomorrow? Could that drug addict we routinely pass be the next to leave words that prick the conscience of a nation? It matters in our own Good Samaritan moments.

If Dr. Angelou matters, she matters not simply for the accomplished record that remains. But more so, for our examination of her words that our own journey will be more humane, indeed more godly. Here, the real love of the prophet is to move in the direction of angels; touching lives of others whose paths we cross. 

History will reveal our treatment of Dr. Maya Angelou’s life. A history that recalls the steps of inherited royalty is untouchable. Distant. Out of touch for the ordinary life. But a history where acclaim shares the stage with meandering disappointments, setbacks, and even mistakes is one that we can all embrace. As it fuses with a history of our own.   

 


 

I want to publicly thank Ms. Karla Chenault Kennard for her commitment to the ministry of this blog in editing this and other articles at kennethdprice.com. 

[important]Dr. Maya Angelou was an extraordinary human being and we were blessed to have her with us. Her works are provided below. Consider adding some of them to your library. [/important]

 

   

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