There are people on the public stage, who we might think of as celebrities, whatever their field. Their life’s work becomes our life’s consumption. And over the course of years – or shorter periods that take on the significance and weight of years via the shortcuts of strife and pain – we get to feeling that we knew them, and more importantly they knew us. The reality is often quite the opposite, of course. What we knew was nothing in the grand scheme of things, and not only did they not know us, they never really wanted to.
That is not the feeling I got with Dr Maya Angelou, who died at the age of 86 on Wednesday. I fancy that Maya knew us, wanted to know us, and always tried to improve her knowledge of us. And through her wonderful works, I feel that I knew her as well.
I read her six autobiographies between the ages of 16 and 17, falling in love with every part of her that she laid bare. I went around quoting from those books – from her life, really – all the time, reading aloud passages with my sister, laughing along with her. Even now, inching closer to 20 years since we read them, we talk about the parts that we talked about then.
Maya Angelou meant so much to me. Reading about her life, from girlhood to adulthood, via all the detours her life took was a treat. Her life was a kind of treasure and road map too, giving guidance and succour as required. It gave me unconditional permission to do and be whatever I wanted to do or be, perhaps more than any other black woman before or since. And she never stopped learning or living, adding on more exciting chapters than seemed possible. And she remained witty and sharp and kind through it all. She was full of a fiery anger, the kind that burns it all clean. She was full of humour, of a fearlessness that is never not inspiring, but all the more when you consider the time in which she was being fearless. Her humanity was at a level more of us should strive for.
Maya Angelou lived life and got fat on its riches.
Rest in peace, Maya. You meant so much to so many.