Alva James-Johnson: An undaunted voice is stilled

May 29, 2014 

It's a little intimidating writing a column about a woman who was arguably one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

There are just no words to grasp the full meaning of her life. "Phenomenal" comes to mind, but that's already taken.

Yet, if the late legendary Maya Angelou were in my seat today, I have no doubt she would seize the moment. She never backed down from a challenge, and through her life showed us how to persevere no matter the obstacle, whether it be adversity, disappointment or doubt.

She summed up that undaunted spirit this way in one of her famous poems:

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

So can I do any less?

Angelou, who died Wednesday at age 86, was a poet, author, dancer, actress, civil rights activist and a national treasure. She was a woman who overcame her past as a rape victim, teenage mother and product of the segregated South to become the deep, rich voice of the voiceless.

Angelou articulated struggle and hope, fear and dreams in a way that bridged generations and people of various ethnic backgrounds. She didn't shy away from showing us both the good and the bad sides of life. She challenged us to look honestly in the mirror so we could become a better nation.

At President Bill Clinton's first inauguration, she recited these words from her poem "On the Pulse of Morning":

You, created only a little lower than

The angels, have crouched too long in

The bruising darkness,

Have lain too long

Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words

Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,

But do not hide your face.

Yes, Angelou was a powerful writer. And her words pierced our souls.

But what impressed me most was her confidence in who she was as a person.

Angelou was sassy, daring and bold. She didn't let society determine her value, but found her worth deep inside. And through her poetry, she inspired countless people to also embrace their unique characteristics, many of them black women and girls who don't fit Euro-centric standards of beauty.

What made Angelou so beautiful? You dare ask.

"It's in the reach of my arms, the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips," she wrote. "I'm a woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that's me."

While there's no way to fully sum up her life, Angelou described herself best in her own words, on her own terms -- no help needed from me.

May her memory live on for future generations.

Alva James-Johnson, ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com.

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