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Maya Angelou: a writer's appreciation

Maya Angelou in 2003.

Maya Angelou in 2003. Credit: AP / ANNETTE LEIN

Maya Angelou was certainly not the first black American woman writer -- we have written since we first landed on these shores -- but she was the first black woman writer I knew of. Her death last month reminded me how crucial she was to my development as a young woman and as a writer.

A naturally curious child and reader, I filched my mother's paperback copy of Angelou's memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," when I was about 12 years old. By that age, I understood the history of segregation, but Angelou's writing demonstrated the intersection of history and ordinary people's lives. An account of her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, in the 1930s and '40s, it was lyrical yet brutal, devastating yet uplifting. After I finished "Caged Bird," I slipped it back into its place on the bookshelf and carefully removed "Gather Together in My Name," the next volume of Angelou's life story. In some ways, I consider it my secret education.

Those six volumes were, for me, the kind of life lessons your mother would never tell you. The experience was like eavesdropping at the doorway while grown women spoke among themselves, abandoning decorum in favor of truth that burned like strong whiskey. Angelou wrote of herself as a single mother who was also an activist and an artist. She shared her experiences as a survivor of child rape, yet she also wrote about the ecstasy of romantic love. Not so much concerned with "having it all," she figured out a way to do it all, balancing love and sex, family and career. A friend of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., she was deeply dedicated to social justice. Just as she couldn't be walled in by the mores and customs of her hometown, even the borders of the United States could not quite contain her; she practiced journalism in Ghana and Egypt and as a dancer performed in Europe's major cities. Alongside her dazzling, crystal-stair recollections, she tells the hard truths, describing her experiences as a prostitute in order to support herself and her young son.

When I was a young writer, Angelou inspired me not so much to win awards, but to be read and to connect. She demonstrated the alchemy by which she transformed her unique experience and idiosyncratic vision into a universal truth, accessible to people across life's vast spectrum. Despite all that she revealed, I don't think of her as a confessional writer. She writes as a worldly woman, unbowed and unashamed. She once said, "When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we're capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness." As readers of her work, we share the journey.

In her later years, her writing was considered by some to be merely "popular." Yet she followed in the footsteps of Langston Hughes, establishing herself as a people's poet whose work is recited at talent shows, church services and commencement ceremonies. She wrote poems for greeting cards to be shared between loved ones. Soul singers and rap artists cited her in their lyrics without ever losing the beat. "Sesame Street" delivered her charms and verses to little children, while their parents sought her sage advice on Oprah.

Angelou will be remembered in the hearts and minds of everyday people who clung to her words to make sense of this complicated American life. Last semester, one of my students proudly bared her shoulders across which "Phenomenal Woman" -- the title of Angelou's beloved 1978 poem -- was tattooed in an ornate script. This, I believe, is a perfect tribute. For Angelou understood that poetry should not be confined to pages or to classrooms, that it should be infused with the air, taken into our lungs, laced through our thoughts and sometimes even inked onto our bodies.

Tayari Jones is the author of three novels, including "Silver Sparrow" (Algonquin). She teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University.

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