Reflecting on the life of Maya Angelou
May 28, 2014
Poet and author Maya Angelou, who delivered the Eighth Annual Sr. Cleophas Costello Lecture at Loyola in 1990, touched many lives throughout her life.
Loyola magazine invited members of the Loyola community to celebrate her life and reflect on her impact.
Opening Unusual Doors
Brian Norman, Ph.D., is director of African and African American studies at Loyola. His courses focus largely on civil rights literature, a time in American history during which Angelou played a major role.
Norman pointed out that while Angelou is mainly known for her work as an autobiographer and poet, she was a woman of many talents who got her start as dancer and singer. She went on to tour Europe; she performed on Broadway; she recorded several albums. Angelou taught classes at Wake Forest University and even authored cookbooks.
“She had a pretty impressive resume for a young girl who grew up in segregated Arkansas. And we have to remember that she came of age during the height of the Civil Rights movement. There was great responsibility that came with being a Civil Rights artist and a black artist. Angelou gave a heart to the movement—not just to protest injustices, but to celebrate and revel in the beauty and in the lives of everyday black folks.”
Norman explained people connect with Angelou because she spoke from her own experience as a black woman: “Folks even beyond her own specific identify found themselves represented in her, in the way that she found out of her own history of pain, both personal and political, a sense of beauty, grace, and integrity that came from her growing up in the Jim Crow South and then as a celebrated artist on the world stage.”
Just yesterday, Norman said he was reading Angelou’s eulogy of her friend, James Baldwin, at whose funeral she spoke in 1987. She closed in saying, “His love opened the unusual door for me, and I am blessed that James Baldwin was my brother.”
“That’s what Angelou did for many. She opened ‘unusual doors’ from her own pain and isolation… to beauty and fellowship,” Norman reflected.
My Heart Has Stopped
“For just a moment, my heart has stopped. The same way that it stopped when my Nana passed away, when Toni Cade Bambara passed away, when Tata Madiba passed away. I met Auntie Maya Angelou when I lived in New York. It was in 1999 and I had just won The Langston Hughes, David Diop, Etheridge Knight Poetry Award from The Gwendolyn Brooks Creative Writing Center. She came over to me after I received myAward, grabbed my hand and gave me a hug. She then said, ‘Keep writing baby, the world needs your words so that we can become a little bit better.’ To this day, I write these words in the front of every journal that I have and I have them hanging in my bedroom to remind myself to keep writing, to keep going, and to keep doing my part to make the word better. Today, just for a moment, when a friend called to give me the news, my heart stopped.
I met Auntie Maya Angelou again in 2002. At that time, I was a young mother, pregnant with my second son, and had just received a New York Emmy-nomination for my documentary ‘Twin Towers: A History.’ I asked her for some advice on how to keep going everyday because I was exhausted. She then took my copy of her book, wrote something down, gave it back to me, and said do everything with Joy! She then hugged me and moved on to the next person.”
—Kaye Whitehead, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication and African & African American Studies and author of Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis
A Great Loss to Humankind
“The death of Maya Angelou is a great loss to humankind. She was a steady backbone for a people grappling with issues of diversity. She inspired me as a woman and as an educator to dare to think big thoughts, to dare to love, and to dare to create change where needed.
This is one of my favorite quotes of hers: ‘The desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise and most possible.'”
—Kari O’Grady, Ph.D., assistant professor in the pastoral counseling department
An Evergreen Memory
“As part of the Evergreen Players, I often got to meet celebrities who came to Loyola’s campus to speak. In 1990, I had the pleasure of listening to and meeting Maya Angelou. I can close my eyes and still hear her captivating voice and amazing words. She was quite the inspiration and will be missed.”
—Michele Wojciechowski, ’90, writer and president of Wojo Enterprises
What a Gift
“I remember reading ‘Still I Rise’ for the first time in high school, feeling power bestowed on me through Angelou’s voice, spirit, and strength. I go back to those words again and again, gaining more with each read. What a gift that her presence will always BE there to carry me through life’s constant trials.”
—Erin O’Keefe, ’03, director of the York Road Initiative
She Spoke to Me
“Although Maya Angelou was a black woman and was very proud of her color, she did not seem to operate from a place that focused on gender, race, sexuality, or culture. Her words, delivered in various forms…poetry, speeches, conversations, advice…spoke to everyone. I remember reading her books and being amazed by how she seemed to know me and be speaking to me directly even though we seemingly had nothing in common. Her work transcended all of those potential barriers without effort. I think that was part of her broad and long lasting appeal. I was also always struck by the positivity of all of her messages and by her constant message to embrace life joyfully and passionately.”
—Janet Simon Schreck, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, executive director, Loyola Clinical Centers