Eulogies are difficult business. They demand that decades of life be folded, superfolded and fit neatly into a few column inches. There will never come an instance where a life, any life, can be devolved from millions of minutes of living skin and bones into a few odd words on paper. Eulogies, therefore, fail -- and spectacularly so. This particular eulogy will offer no exception to the rule except perhaps failing a bit more than the others, for it is penned in memory of the woman who taught people the world over that every minute of every day demanded to be chronicled. Maya Angelou, one of the world's most loved and celebrated authors, passed away on the 28th of May. She left behind a civilisation still stumbling to put one foot ahead of the next.
Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri on the cusp of the Great Depression that was to strike America and make poets out of the likes of Ezra Pound and Robert Frost. Born at a time when racial and sexual segregation was rampant, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was seven. The horrific incident and its aftermath left her unable to speak for over five years.
Over the years, Angelou has tried on many different skins -- a singer, a nightclub performer, a prostitute, a chef, a poet, an actor, a director. Throughout the constant discarding and trial of the different masks one constant burned brightly, cutting through all other charades -- her passionate love for life, the fiery enthusiasm with which she tackled adversity that would make most of us crumble.
And it is perhaps of little wonder, then, that her many poems and autobiographies speak with the accent of an earthly zest, a call to arms to observe all the wonders of life. Her poems read themselves out in the minds of millions of people across the globe in the sassy Southern melody of jazz, brimming with life, wit and innate wisdom. Angelou's first autobiography “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” brought her international acclaim and opened the oft-reluctant doors of literature to embrace a new form of writing. One where experience and emotion takes precedence over guile and craft; a common voice amongst the ones breathing with intellectual rhetoric. A voice to tell you of the bent grass after a rainy day and the fumes emanating from a kitchen at night; a voice that asks, poignantly, “what's all the lyin' and the dyin' and the beatin' and the cheatin' all about?”
Angelou became an icon for the Civil Rights Movement, working at first with Malcolm X before his assassination and then Martin Luther King Jr. before he, too, was assassinated. She became the first poet to give the opening speech at a presidential inauguration (Bill Clinton's) since Robert Frost's speech when Kennedy was being sworn in. Her words made it possible for people trapped in racial segregation to raise their heads and campaign for equality. She has received countless honorary doctorates from universities all over the world and has three Grammy awards and an Emmy to her name. She was a pre-eminent voice of feminism and power amongst young women, who could now look to Angelou as the embodiment of the fiery passion that is so often repressed by patriarchal societies.
To fit in all her achievements runs the risk of turning this eulogy into a voluminous book. It is fitting, in a way, that this remains painfully incomplete for her work remains incomplete, too. She is looking towards the posterity to see who will carry on her life's work -- the duty of enlightening the world about co-existence and the calming happiness that comes from it. Maya Angelou may have left behind a civilisation still stumbling to put one foot ahead of the next, but she also taught us to take some time out and look up at the sky in search of rainbows.