‘The Black Swan’ is proverbial for something extremely rare or non-existent. Maya Angelou, the mute little girl whose written voice changed the world–The Black Swan of both politics and art–died quietly in her North Carolina home last Wednesday. She was 86.
This Renaissance woman, an award-winning poet, actress and author, published more than 30 titles and received more than 50 honorary degrees. As a civil rights activist she worked directly with both Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and befriended Nelson Mandela.
Angelou was a Pulitzer Prize nominee, a notably quotable writer and a profound human being. A repeat White House guest, Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.
Clinton on Wednesday praised Angelou as “a national treasure” and “beloved friend.”
“The poems and stories she wrote and read us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace,” Clinton said.
And her last words echoed the same characteristic intelligence and dignity that she had shown her entire life. Her final tweet: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou grew up amidst poverty and racism, and had many compelling stories to tell. She penned seven autobiographical works, most notably her breakthrough book and best-selling 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
In it, she writes about how she was raped at age 7 by her mother’s boyfriend. The man spent one day in jail before being released, but was murdered four days later by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou, convinced she was to blame for his death, became mute for five years. The book, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best seller by an African-American woman, was encouraged by her novelist friend James Baldwin.
Baldwin was Angelou’s mentor, and Angelou mentored Oprah Winfrey. Oprah said that Angelou was reliably strong and supportive through Winfrey’s most difficult times. “She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”
At the time of her death, Angelou was working on an autobiography about her experiences with national and world leaders.
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.
Farewell, Black Swan.