It’s unlikely she’s resting in peace. Maya Angelou never was one for quietude, not when there was work to be done. Angelou died today at her home in Winston-Salem, at the age of 86, a looming figure in the world of American letters and one of the few authors who was equally at home on Oprah, dancing in a San Francisco nightclub, and accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There are some excellent remembrances of Angelou around the Internet – The New York Times, The Root, and Angelou’s own words on life at 80 are all worth visiting.
There are a few moments of Angelou’s, though, that stand out to me, so this place will be like a collection, like a (highly incomplete) best-of album. These are some of my favorite things about and moments of Ms. Angelou’s, the closest thing we have to a national conscience.
1. Of all the songs in all the world…
In a 2013 New York Times interview, Angelou talked about what she was listening to. Calling herself a “serious aficionada of country music,” she confessed that she had written a few (as-yet unpublished) songs, and then blew us all off our high horses. “I love the song ‘I Hope You Dance‘ by Lee Ann Womack,” she said. “I was going to write that song, but someone beat me to it.”
You might not expect a Pulitzer-nominated author to cop to loving a cheesy country song, let alone wishing she had written the thing. But Angelou dealt in inspiration in her later career as much as anything, and in a lesser writer’s hands, it would have meant the death of a career. Angelou’s famously turbulent life, though, shone some light of truth on the clichés authors are taught to avoid, and her unabashed enthusiasm for life was a breath of fresh air in a culture and industry that trade in irony and cynicism.
2. “On the Pulse of the Morning”
Angelou read this poem at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. “Come/Clad in peace and I will sing the songs/The Creator gave to me when I and the/Tree and the stone were one.”
3. San Francisco Streetcar
Angelou was San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor. She moved with her mother and brother to Oakland when she was fourteen and dropped out of high school for a time to work what looked like a glamorous job: “I saw women on the streetcars with their changer belts,” she told Winfrey. “That, and they had caps with bills on them. And they had form-fitting jackets. I loved the uniforms. So I said, ‘That’s the job I want.’ ”
4. The Dance
During a tribute for Langston Hughes at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Angelou busted a move on the dance floor with her friend, the poet Amiri Baraka. As she later recalled, a picture of the moment was published with the caption that Baraka and Angelou were “highlighting the ancient African rite of ancestral return.” Angelou called Baraka to ask whether he had been performing this ritual. No, he informed her — just the jitterbug. She did the Texas hop. It’s a thing of beauty to behold.
5. That’s Doctor Calypso to you
In the mid-1950s, after ending her marriage to Greek sailor and musician Anastasios Angelopulos, Angelou began a career on the stage. She recorded an album of calypso music called Miss Calypso, toured Europe with an opera version of Porgy and Bess, studied with legendary choreographer Martha Graham and danced with Alvin Ailey.
This was a woman who lived through and in some of the hardest circumstances life had to offer, but grew in her way to delight in her life. She will be missed.
From “When Great Trees Fall”
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.