Race Matters

Dr Maya Angelou's passing must propel activists and the anti-racist agenda

Yesterday, a true hero of the African diaspora passed away. In contemporary times, when sports stars and celebrities are the most common recipients of heroic and legendary descriptions, we must take a moment to appreciate the life and work of Dr. Maya Angelou.

Born in Missouri in 1928, Dr. Angelou overcame not only the almost insurmountable barriers facing Black women in pre-civil rights America, but personal adversities and abuses that are unthinkable to most. Through her great personal and collective struggles Angelou went on to become one of the most successful and inspirational people in America. The inextricable links between personal and collective struggles is best exemplified by Angelou when she says:

‘Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.’
A champion of gender and race equality, it is perhaps the wide-ranging reach of Angelou’s work that is most impressive. As a writer, playwright, political commentator, poet, educator and director, Angelou spoke to, and inspired, diverse audiences through multiple platforms. The ability to transcend audiences ranging from established scholars and activists, to the children of all ages who would read her books, perhaps stands as her most impressive achievement. As Neubaeur states in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, Angelou became a ‘spokesperson for Blacks and women, but also for all people who are committed to raising the moral standards of living in the United States.’ Even this understates the influence of Angelou as her work had influence across the world. Doreen Lawrence, recently named the number one ‘game changer’ by Woman’s Hour,  has long stated her admiration for Angelou.

We are eternally indebted to Maya Angelou and her work in the civil rights movement, the modern renaissance, and in feminist movements. The work of Angelou, and others, has changed the course of history and the lives of us all. As Angelou herself noted, her work was about more than the Black struggle: ‘I speak to the Black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition — about what we can endure, dream, fail at and survive.’ Dr. Angelou was a true intersectionalist, strongly committed to social justice for all.

We must not forget the legacy Angelou has left and all should be encouraged to explore her life and work. Detailing her early struggles, her first auto-biography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings serves as a good starting point and should be essential reading for all. This book acted as a catalyst in my developing of interest in race and social justice and I’m sure it has had a similar impact for many others. Her poem And Still I Rise, is also a constant inspiration. Despite these having particular pertinence for me and my life, as the obituaries flood in, we see that different works inspired different people in different ways. Whilst Maya Angelou’s work has been influential in UK English curricula at GCSE and A-Level, under an Education Secretary committed to a curriculum of dead-white men, it seems it will be up to parents and activists to ensure children can enjoy what has inspired many before them.

Whilst mourning her passing, we must also allow it to inspire our struggle for equality. Whilst many argue that racism has changed and taken on more subterranean and institutionalised forms, we still see, in cases such as that of Jeremy Clarkson, the pervasiveness of overt racism and an unacceptable tolerance. Activists of today must rise up against all forms of racism, and become the heroes of tomorrow.

We must continue to challenge the racism that permeates every level of the criminal justice system. We must continue to challenge the racial discrimination that restricts housing choices of Black communities. We must continue to break down the barriers that prohibit the educational advancement of the children of our communities. We must challenge the economic disparities, the employment disparities, and the disparities in health services. We must challenge the recent proliferation of overt prejudice in to the political sphere and the public imagination.

We must be inspired, and find the courage to inspire. As Dr Maya Angelou said:

‘Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently.'
 
Remi is a PhD researcher and the Editor of GJSS. He is on Twitter.
 
Photo credit: Flickr, York College ISLGP
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