The Phenomenal Woman and Exceptional Public Speaker: Maya Angelou
My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style. – Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was one of the distinguished and distinctive voices of the world. We all know her as poet, novelist, actress, civil right activist, speaker and academician. She donned multifarious roles in her personal and professional life. A close friend and associate of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Dr. Angelou inspired millions of lives through her poems, books, movies, speeches and lectures. Although she may no longer be with us, her work and her legacy will continue to enthuse others to fulfill their greatest potential and make the world a more equitable place for all. Her autobiographical work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, created an international sensation when it was first published in 1969. Her books and poems made her one of the world’s favorite authors and one of America’s best-loved public speakers. President Bill Clinton requested that she compose a poem for his first inaugural in 1993; she recited that poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” to an audience of millions on live television. She invigorated many with her wisdom-filled words, her stories that within two lines can make your gut sink and your heart flutter and her ability to stand up for what was right when things were wrong. Even at the age of 80, he remained passionate about public speaking and captivated audience with her talk. When she gave a speech during 2008 Obama’s presidential campaign in North Carolina. At that point, she was in a wheelchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank to help her breathe. But her enthusiasm and energy betrayed her age, she rolled up like she was destined to empower others. She took the stage, as she always did, like she’d been born there. Everyone was completely awed and overwhelmed by her presence and enunciation. Three important lessons that we all can learn from her remarkable life:
“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”
Dr. Maya Angelou narrated the most moving story – “I was a mute from the time I was seven and a half until I was almost 13. I didn’t speak. I had voice, but I refused to use it.” As a child, Maya Angelou was traumatized by abuse. She was molested by a man and on further enquiry, she named him, later the man was lynched. Maya felt personally responsible for that man’s death and refused to speak thereafter. She was sent to her grandmother in countryside to recover. Her grandmother read Charles Dickens to her with great power and emphasis. For five years, she was silent, but in time, she found her voice, and that voice has been heard around the world. A single mother at age 16, she embarked on a remarkable career as an actress and entertainer, as a journalist and educator and eventually, as one of the world’s most eminent authors and poets. Dr. Angelou credited her grandmother for revealing miraculous and restorative power of language and healing power of human voice.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In an eloquent eulogy to Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama spoke “But while I don’t remember her exact words, I do remember exactly how she made me feel. She made me feel like I owned the place, too. She made me feel like I had been born on that stage right next to her. And I remember thinking to myself, Maya Angelou knows who I am, and she’s rooting for me. So, now I’m good. I can do this. I can do this. She taught us all that it is okay to be your regular old self, whatever that is – your poor self, your broken self, your brilliant, bold, phenomenal self.” Maya Angelou understood how words are instrumental in evoking different shades of emotion in the audience that makes the whole experience unforgettable.
“Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.”
In an interview, Dr. Maya Angelou said about the most defining quality of Martin Luther King Jr. – “I suppose courage would be the first of his many wondrous and wonderful qualities that I would list. I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair. So I think the first virtue – the first element- of his personality that I would extoll would be courage.” The underlying message is quite evident that courage is the most virtuous of human virtues and without observing it, human life has little significance. She inspired millions of African-Americans in the US and the oppressed elsewhere in the world to fight for their rights valiantly and encouraged prominent personality like Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and others to lead by example.
However for Dr. Angelou, her own transition was never enough. The undeniable verity of her life was that she didn’t just want to be phenomenal herself, she wanted all of us to be phenomenal right alongside her. Maya Angelou will forever be our rainbow in the clouds.
Something to ponder:
The Phenomenal Women – Maya Angelou
“It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman