Maya Angelou and Business as Usual

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Maya Angelou passed away last week, ending a life scarred by early suffering but also one redeemed through music and literature. Her iconic novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, grew out of an unspeakable childhood experience in which at age seven she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. He was later found dead and Angelou refused to speak for several years afterward, believing she had caused his death because she reported the incident. Only her older brother Bailey could break her silence during those years.
She first appeared in public as a calypso singer and dancer, but soon turned to the printed word, working for newspapers in Cairo and Accra, Ghana. During a long and varied career she worked as a civil rights activist, playwright, actress, singer, dancer and professor, penned more than 30 books and won numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama in 2011.

I was pleased with the number and quality of the tributes that the media produced about this charming woman. Poetry does not occupy much space in the minds and hearts of most Americans, unlike Europe where it is a part of daily life. I was glad with the passing of Dr. Angelou that people from all walks of life honored her achievements and legacy, but I couldn’t help comparing the notice given her passing to the one accorded Allen Ginsberg , arguably a  literary light on a par with Dr. Angelou (I don’t think you can compare poets by any means: I’m comparing the social reaction to their deaths.) Ginsberg had the singular bad fortune to die the same day as the Washington NFL team owner Jack Kent Cooke. As I recall (and I haven’t been able to find facsimiles of the paper online), Cooke garnered about 100 column inches or more with the story of his death on the front pages as well as being splashed all throughout the paper while Ginsberg merited (if that’s the word) about 20, stuck on some back page with the furniture ads.

I wasn’t surprised by this inequity, just a little sad about our priorities as a nation. And that’s why the respect and honored accorded Maya Angelou made me feel that we are doing a better job noticing what matters. That’s only appropriate because she spent her life making sure that’s exactly what we do.


Following a 32-year career teaching English, creative writing, human relations, American and world civilization, ESOL, computer skills, guitar and song-writing, long-time Northern Virginia resident Dan Verner has produced novels, blogs, columns, devotionals, articles and the occasional poem. Dan serves as vice-president of Write by the Rails and has two published novels, On Wings of the Morning and its sequel On the Wings of Eagle.


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