And it’s with a sad heart that we dedicate this week’s Special Disco Mention to singer, actor, poet, author, activist and visionary Maya Angelou.
Aged 86, Angelou died in her family home, having lived a life that saw her write countless books, attend countless rallies and speak countless words, all to readdress the bigotries and imbalances keyed deep into the North American psyche.
Born in Missouri, 1928, Angelou’s early life saw her move between St Louis, Arkansas and California, gathering the experiences both enlightening and terrible that made her first volume of autobiography, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ a foundational text in the history of modern America. She talked of her rape as a child, using the act of violence to serve as a metaphor for the experience of African Americans in the USA, without ever descending herself into victimhood. Angelou’s most famous poem, 1978’s ‘Still I Rise’ shows, perhaps more eloquently than anywhere else, her defiant spirit shine through –
“Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Her 86 years saw her befriend Mandela in South Africa and Malcolm X in Harlem, recite for presidents and advocate for black women everywhere. She was a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University from 1982 – and the university has been unsurprisingly effusive in its tribute, accurately calling Angelou "a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world". In the 90s her poetry made publishing history, hitting the best seller lists after her performance of ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated soon.
But most of all Angelou tirelessly promoted a view of the infinite potential of humanity, and the last words here should be her own. “If you are always trying to be normal,” she famously noted, “you will never know how amazing you can be.”