HHSE 2: Period 3
18 January 2019
Maya Angelou: Changing the World One Word at a Time
"Heroes arrive when we need them most. They define us and point us in a direction… and as long as we need examples of how to live, as long as we aspire, we will never be too old for heroes” (Granger). David Granger’s article “Boy, Do We Ever Need a Hero” asserts the constant need for heroes in our lives. He claims that heroes are necessary in society as they are role models for everyday people. So then, using this assertion that a hero is a role model, he or she must serve as an inspiration to others. A hero is any ordinary person that we can look up to, like a single mother who works hard to provide for her family, or perhaps a teacher who shapes the young minds of the future. Both of these examples are of inspiring people. However, what makes them inspirational can vary; heroes can be role models through their courage, their perseverance, their integrity, and so on. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, meaning different people look up to different heroes. To me, a hero is not only inspirational, but he or she should also make an impact on the world; a true hero must have wisdom and use it to teach others while being passionate about what he or she believes in and working tirelessly to change the world.
President Barack Obama presenting Maya Angelou with the Presidential Medal of FreedomOffice of the White House [Public domain]A truly inspirational and renowned figure, Maya Angelou has not only earned the title “hero,” but she has defined it in a whole new way. Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou, more commonly known as Maya Angelou, was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. As an African-American girl living in the South, Angelou’s life was filled with racism, sexism, and poverty. At the age of 8, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend who was later murdered after she told her family; consequently, she became mute for five years as she believed that “her words had brought about the death… her love of literature, as she later wrote, helped restore language to her” (Fox). She was a hardworking woman who had carried a number of titles, including author, poet, actress, singer, playwright, director, producer, and civil rights activist. At the age of seventeen, she gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson; Angelou worked a number of jobs to provide for him, such as “a shake dancer in nightclubs, fry cook in hamburger joints, dinner cook in a Creole restaurant and once [she] had a job in a mechanic’s shop” (Fox). In the 1950s, Angelou’s career as a stage performer took off and she toured for Porgy and Bess, an American opera. She later worked as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) where she met Martin Luther King Jr. After hearing him speak, “Angelou resolved to help SCLC raise funds by staging a revue, ‘Cabaret for Freedom’” (“Angelou, Maya.” [Birmingham Campaign]). After spending some years living in Egypt then Ghana, Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1969 to publish her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which she wrote about her difficult childhood in the racist South. Her story was revolutionary and the autobiography was “among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman to reach a wide general readership” (Fox). This was the first pebble of an avalanche; Angelou went on to write several more autobiographies. She was awarded the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom for her hard work, and she finally published her last book, Mom & Me, in 2013. After battling illness for years, Maya Angelou passed away at her home on May 28, 2014. A hero is someone who possesses great wisdom and passion. However, it isn’t enough just to have wisdom. A hero must also share this wisdom with the world to educate society and bring new ideas to life. To be passionate about one’s dream means to do whatever it takes to achieve this goal; a hero must passionately try to change the world for the better. Maya Angelou embodies the values of a true hero through her immeasurable wisdom that enlightens the minds of many and her deep passion that encourages change and equality in the world.
Hillary Clinton and Maya Angelou speaking at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, NC.Kyle Tsui [Public domain]By sharing her wisdom regarding controversial ideas and teaching others about the inequality many Americans face, Maya Angelou rose to the status of hero. During her time, Angelou’s world was filled with inequality; African-Americans were struggling to obtain basic rights in the Civil Rights Movement while the voices of women were suppressed and largely ignored by men. Fitting into both categories, Maya Angelou lived in a world consumed by prejudices. However, she refused to sit back quietly and stubbornly brought her hard-earned wisdom into the world. For example, in a civil rights meeting in the 1990s, Maya Angelou immediately brought to attention the inequality present in the room: “‘She came into the room,’ recalled Al Sharpton, ‘and she said: ‘The first problem is you don’t have women in here of equal status. We need to correct you before you can correct the country’” (Associated Press). By boldly entering the room of powerful leaders and calling out the inequality present, Angelou shared her revolutionary wisdom to teach others despite her lesser status as an African-American woman. A hero must be wise and able to morally educate the world. He or she must be able to spread this knowledge to make the world a better place. Maya Angelou reflects the values of a true hero because she used her wisdom to educate others and bring attention to important issues in the world. Continually refusing to conform to society’s norms, Maya Angelou explored topics that many preferred to sweep under the rug. To many, her writing, especially her autobiographies, was eye-opening about many problems in the world:
Throughout her writing, Ms. Angelou explored the concepts of personal identity and resilience through the multifaceted lens of race, sex, family, community and the collective past. As a whole, her work offered a cleareyed examination of the ways in which the socially marginalizing forces of racism and sexism played out at the level of the individual. (Fox)
Maya Angelou wrote of her personal experiences as an African-American girl to reveal how inequalities, like racism and sexism, changed one girl and did so to many others as well. An example of this can be seen in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where Angelou reveals how she felt about being African-American:
Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? When they saw my light-blue eyes, they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoken the language like they did, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs’ tails. Because I was really white and a cruel magician had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with kinky black hair, broad feet, and a space between her teeth that would hold a pencil. (Angelou 4 [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings])
Angelou confesses all of the horrible things she thought about her appearance as a young girl whose race was thought of as inferior in society. Her wish mirrored the stigma surrounding the appearance of African-Americans; the wisdom of her writing revealed to others how racism has a detrimental effect on innocent children. Bringing to light the widespread racism and sexism present in society, Angelou’s deep and personal autobiographies showed many of the hardships that an African-American girl encounters throughout her life. A hero’s wisdom must be ground-breaking; they must challenge the rules set in stone and create their own. One of the first to do so, Maya Angelou spoke out regarding racism, sexism, and personal identity without fear to teach others. Due to her unparalleled wisdom and willingness to enlighten others with this knowledge, Maya Angelou remains a true hero.
Maya Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.Clinton Library [Public domain]Maya Angelou had a deep passion for what she believed in, which enabled her to take immediate action to try and make the world a better place for everyone. “In The Heart of a Woman, Angelou covers the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period in which black artists in the United States were increasingly addressing racial abuse and black liberation. In the book, Angelou herself makes a decision to move away from show business to, as she describes it, ‘take on the responsibility of making [people] think. [It] was the time to demonstrate [her] own seriousness.’” (“Maya Angelou”). Angelou readily moved away from her successful career in show business in order to “demonstrate her own seriousness.” As more people began to speak out against racism, she chose to follow this path and address racism in her own way. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and watching others take action, Maya Angelou decided to take matters into her own hands. A hero should do whatever it takes to accomplish his or her goal, and this is exactly what Maya Angelou did. She wanted to make a difference and would not let anything get in the way of her doing that. Her determination and passion to change the world made her unafraid of taking risks and allowed her to obtain the title of a hero. Throughout her life, Maya Angelou continually made decisions fueled by her need to help the world. Not only did Angelou live her life passionately, but she also bestowed this purposefulness upon others, encouraging them to better the world: “Her advice to the Obamas? To be ‘inclusive, not exclusive. I teach it all the time -- the oneness of human beings.’ She lives it, too. ‘Her home in North Carolina is the only home I've ever been to where people from all walks of life mingle and mix, where people are valued by the warmth of their personalities,’ says Norman Lear” ("A global giant, Maya Angelou continues to live her message of inclusion"). Angelou strongly believed in the idea of equality and the “oneness of human beings.” Even her home was filled with people of all types who lived in harmony. Angelou reached out and shared her beliefs with others, reaching influential figures and everyday people alike. She worked to gather others in working towards the same goal of an equal world. Throughout her life, Maya Angelou worked relentlessly and passionately to make the world a better place. This is precisely what a true hero would do; a hero stops at nothing to accomplish his or her goal to develop the world. Angelou’s passion drove everything she taught others. She dreamed of a world where every man, woman, and child is equal, and that’s what made her a hero; she was passionate about the fate of everyone as a whole. Maya Angelou remains a hero because of this undying passion and determination to change the world.
Poet and activist Maya Angelou addresses students and staff at Tennessee Technological University.Brian Stansberry (photographer) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]Due to the wisdom she used to teach and enlighten others and the passion that drove her to try and better the world, Maya Angelou is worthy of the title “hero.” Angelou was a very wise woman; it can be seen in her literary works, the things she says, and the causes she fought for. However, her wisdom isn’t what made her a hero. Instead, it was her willingness to share this revolutionary wisdom to educate people that makes her heroic. Angelou was also passionate about what she believed in. Throughout her life, she was a strong advocate for abolishing racial and gender discrimination. Angelou aspired to better the world, and through her wise and passionate words, she served as an inspiration to many. Despite her tragic experiences, Maya Angelou still shared her story with the world. However, she wasn’t just writing about her own life; her words gave a voice to millions of people around the world. In the foreword of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Oprah Winfrey says, “…for the first time, here was a story that finally spoke to the heart of me. I was in awe. How could this author, Maya Angelou, have the same life experiences, the same feelings, longings, perceptions, as a poor black girl from Mississippi––as me?” (Angelou 2 [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings]). Angelou’s booming voice brought strength to marginalized women and others who were underprivileged. Her progress has allowed several others to speak up for themselves. As a survivor of rape, Maya Angelou’s story allowed women to empathize with her life and realize that they are not alone in this world. Not only is Angelou inspirational due to her ability to succeed despite the many factors in life working against her, but she particularly inspires me through something she once said: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude” (Anglis). In life, I often feel like I am powerless. There are so many problems in the world that affect people, and yet I have no way to help them. Thousands of people die from gun violence every year, women continue to face sexism and misogyny, and racism lives on in America, as strong as ever. However, Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t like something, change it.” Looking back at her life, I can see that this is exactly what she did; she took all of the disadvantages she was born into and used it to catapult herself into a position where she could stop others from having to live the same difficult life she did. In this way, Maya Angelou inspires me to change the world; in the future, I would like to put myself in a position where I can be heard and make a difference to people. To me, this does not even have to be a big change; as long as I can make a difference in my community, school, or even just at home, I will know that I have the ability to help others. Even now, I am trying to become more of a leader to help others. For example, I was the captain of my high school volleyball team. This great opportunity allowed me to lead other girls and shape how they interact with each other. In this way, Angelou inspired me to take control of my life to become a leader and help people. David Granger wrote, "Heroes arrive when we need them most. They define us and point us in a direction." Maya Angelou was a true hero who arrived in the midst of a trying time; she helped fight for civil rights and stood up for women. She taught us what it means to live as a person whom society sees as less than a human being. She taught us what it means to live a meaningful, content life. But most of all, she taught us what it means to be a hero.
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Anglis, Jaclyn. “Our Favorite Maya Angelou Quotes That Still Inspire Us Today.” Woman's World, Woman's World, 11 Sept. 2018, www.womansworld.com/posts/quotes-by-maya-angelou-152663.
Associated Press. “Maya Angelou's Cultural Impact Not Forgotten.” The National, The National, 29 May 2014, www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/maya-angelou-s-cultural-impact-not-forgotten-1.241798.
Fox, Margalit. "Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness to the Jim Crow South, Dies." New York Times, 29 May 2014, p. A1(L). Biography In Context, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A369504690/BIC?u=powa9245&sid=BIC&xid=5790ee45. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.
Granger, David. “Boy, Do We Ever Need a Hero.” Esquire, vol. 130, no. 5, Nov. 1998, p. 26. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=1220165&site=ehost-live.
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