This article was published in the Omaha World-Herald May 30, 2014
By Ngwarsungu Chiwengo
The writer is a professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at Creighton University. She is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who specializes in African literature.
Maya Angelou is among the first African-American writers I read in graduate school. Her autobiography, “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” spoke of physical, emotional and mental suffering that I could not fathom. Through her autobiography I was able to learn about the lives, struggles and the resilience of African-Americans during the days of segregation.
Although I had lived in Tennessee as a child, I had been protected from African-Americans’ daily experiences, as a foreigner tied to the State of Belgium, and from everyday American life. Through her book, I was able to connect with the African-American community and to understand the world from their eyes.
Maya Angelou taught African-Americans to love themselves and taught me, as an African, the connection between African-Americans and Africans. She taught me to respect the continent and the African diaspora, for unlike writers such as Richard Wright, who distanced themselves from Africans and could only see themselves through Western grids, Maya Angelou loved Africans and Africa and saw herself in the African landscape, within which she worked.
Africa, she writes, is a historical truth: “No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.”
Considering Africa a space free from racism, she traveled to Ghana with her son, Guy Johnson, so he could attend college there. Angelou also taught me the need to be involved within our society or to “pay for others,” as she says. Through her activism and involvement in civil rights movements, willingness to work with Malcolm X and involvement in Martin Luther King’s civil rights activities, I also learned the need to be involved with fellow citizens and other nationals when they needed help or assistance to create a better world and to see themselves differently.
Academic life, from her actions, did not entail disengagement from life.
But what I remember the most about Maya Angelou are the lessons she taught us through her performances.
When I saw her perform in Birmingham, Ala., her recital of “When Malindy Sings” and her poetry taught me much about African-American identity, society and history. Foremost, it taught me about her skills and the work she did to become a successful writer, dancer and singer.
So whenever I hit difficult patches on my road, I remember to be determined and persistent as Angelou in her quest to become a streetcar conductor and to remember “there is something better for me lined up” in the future.
Throughout the years, I have admired her and watched her perform at various government functions and in various films. I have admired her courage to write about being raped, especially since rape was supposed to be kept silent in my African environment. I have admired her for teaching black women to love themselves and their bodies in “Phenomenal Woman” and teaching us to thank God for his love, to forgive those who have wronged us and that “none of us make it out here alone.”
This co-dependency speaks to the co-dependency of my Congolese society and the love we manifest each other as family and friends to survive. Indeed, according to Angelou, “The love of the family, the love of one person can heal. It heals the scars left by a larger society. A massive, powerful society.”
Angelou has taught us much, but I am most grateful for her writings. As a graduate student learning African-American literature when this literature had only begun to be taught, Angelou gave visibility to black writings and put the black word within the national realm. We may forget Ira Aldridge, James Weldon Johnson or Charles W. Chestnut, but Angelou reminded us of their existence through her performances and readings.
At the end of an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Angelou asked Winfrey to remember her. What deeper African request could she have made? She had remembered her mother in writing “Mom & Me & Mom” and made her live through this remembrance, for to be, to continue to exist, she needed to be remembered.
Maya Angelou is gone, but she will continue to be a living ancestor, for we shall continue to remember her through her beautiful words.