by Dr. Michael Simanga
Maya Angelou’s transition to one of our ancestors today leaves us again with a profound sense of loss and also another critical moment to reflect. The loss is monumental because she was a giant amongst the public figures that have impacted art, culture and politics for the past 60 years. The moment to reflect is important because we must not think only about what she gave us but also what she should expect from us.
Dr. Angelou was a multi-discipline artist who created as a writer, singer, composer, dancer, actress, poet, director. Her best known works were her popular poetry and the stunning memoirs filled with the beauty of African American life and the terror of violence against girls and women and racist violence against her community. She spoke with honesty and empathy that revealed a deep spiritual quality that became known world- wide as the voice of someone who believed in the good of humanity and the necessary work of human beings to allow that good to be revealed. She was an artist of conscience who spoke often and eloquently through her art and speeches against injustice, violence and oppression. The potency of her art, the reason it resonates so powerfully is because she developed her incredible talent to the highest level of skill and craft but most importantly because of the depth of the content. Her work came from digging way down into the language and customs, the food and the dance, the music and the nuances of black life. She was a highly educated woman who never stopped learning and who understood that her mission, her sacred mission was to serve her people with the great gifts she was given and the knowledge she aquired.
Maya Angelou was an early advocate for the unity and liberation of Africa and the Diaspora. She promoted African and African American culture, holding it up as an equal to the cultures of the world. Mother Maya, walked this earth like a queen, regal and adorned with the self confidence that comes from knowing you are a descendant of people who could not be defeated. Her poems and stories, her speeches and conversations were soaked in that knowledge. She knew that even if it took 500 years or 1000 years, we will be a free people. She also understood that complacency and self hatred don’t lead to acts of resistance and courage. Faith and love, self love and the undying believe in our humanity were the lessons she taught us. She spoke to us as a divine voice, reminding us, pushing us, pulling us to love ourselves and others. You cannot experience her art and life without feeling that divine voice, rich and full of laughter, scolding us when necessary, challenging us always to be the better us, the higher us, the great us.
Too often with our revered sheroes and heroes we allow them to be airbrushed into pretty icons of irrelevancy. We fall into worshiping the polished image, the part that shines in public, the awards and accolades that get pasted on school posters. But Maya Angelou must be remembered as a champion of our right to be full human beings. Like other artists of her generation, she took great risks to stand with our people and oppressed people everywhere in the fight for justice. She was a friend, supporter and contemporary of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. She stood on picket lines and raised money for human rights causes. Her weapon of choice was the truth and she wielded it in poems and books, plays and music, education and a relentless demand that we be treated as human beings and that all human beings rise up and defeat the forces of violence and racism, sexism and oppression, war and poverty. And while her favored weapons were artistic, she was also willing to put on some marching shoes.
And now, while we grapple with our sorrow and the fact that we must face the world without her steady guidance, we have to also face ourselves and ask if we are willing to speak the truth, to take the risk, to stand with courage like hers and transform this world.
Dr. Simanga is also a scholar who continues to study African American and African Diaspora history and culture to inform his work. Simanga lectures on African American and African Diaspora art, culture, politics and history. He is currently writing a book on Soul Music and the ‘60s social movement. He earned an undergraduate degree in History from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and a PhD in African American Studies from the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati.
Faith Ringgold and her wonderful piece, "Maya's Quilt of Life," which just set a record for her at auction selling for $461,000! September 15, 2015.
In the Spirit: The Connection of John Biggers and Maya Angelou's
Houston, TX- July 19, 2015 - As the public responds to the assault of black bodies, the reemergence of the original concept drawings illustrated by Dr. John Thomas Biggers in collaboration with Dr. Maya Angelou for one of her most well-known poems, “Our Grandmothers,” is an interesting yet timely coincidence. “Our Grandmothers” is a tribute to the strength, determination and endurance of the black women who birthed a nation while historically undergoing obstacles continuously placed before them. The words below echo the sentiments of activists.
“...and I shall not, I shall not be moved.”
The illustrations and poem were published in book form by The Limited Editions Club in 1994. When deciding upon an artist to illustrate Angelou’s writing, Biggers seemed like an obvious fit because of the friendship between the artist and the writer.
“There are subtleties that translate into the final work because of their friendship,” says Eugene Foney, owner of Artcetera, when asked about their collaboration.
However, Biggers, the founder of Texas Southern University’s Art Department, was no stranger to the symbolic use of black womanhood as a focal point in several of his works. Primarily known for his murals, Biggers utilizes the black woman/mother as a “symbol of cosmic energy, traditional knowledge and creative power (Wardlaw, 63).” Reading “Our Grandmothers,” one can’t help but feel as though they are peeking into the life of a woman with strength and power that are far beyond this world which fluidly translates into the illustrations of Biggers.
After being held in a private collection for 20 years, the drawings will be available for viewing and purchase at the Black Art In America Fine Art Show at the Faison Firehouse Theater October 23 - 25th.
Available works online Here
Source: The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, Dr. Alvia Wardlaw