On Tuesday, June 3rd Senator Perkins offered the following remarks on the life of Maya Angelou, acclaimed African-American poet, influential memoirist and playwright:
I rise to honor perhaps the greatest and most inspiring renaissance woman that ever lived: Dr. Maya Angelou. I thank my colleagues, especially Leader Stewart-Cousins and Senators Parker, Sanders, Hassell-Thompson and Montgomery for co-sponsoring this Resolution alongside me.
It is impossible the reduce the extraordinary life that Dr. Angelou lived to a few words. There is a universal and transcendental quality to the life she lived—she grew up one generation removed from slavery—she spent five years of her life entirely mute, as a product of the omnipresent guilt she internalized when the man who raped her at the age of eight was killed. Yet, when she spoke again—she made the bearing of her soul and the fulfillment of her creative and social justice passions—a calling of the highest order, one that has touched all of us here today and legions around the world.
Dr. Angelou was a virtuoso—her accomplishments in the creative arts span the entire spectrum but that was really just a portion of her existence. She once said, “I have no skeletons in my closet; in fact, I have no closet”—which explains why she shared the entirety of herself with the whole world. Dr. Angelou was a single mother who, as a teenager, made the practically painful decision to sell herself to support her son and herself; she subsequently travelled all over the world and immersed herself in different cultures and languages; she was a journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization movement; she was the first black woman to become a streetcar conductor and to write a screenplay; she was a contemporary of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the civil and human rights movements; she was an educator, teacher, mentor and perhaps most importantly an inspirer.
For all of her worldly accomplishments, Dr. Angelou was consummately “regular folk,” especially around Harlem. She conducted regular “sittings” at her home on 120th Street, inviting neighbors for hours of conversation, debate and enrichment. I was honored to be at her home on multiple occasions and to have spirited discussions with her. You could often find her at the local Fairway or Fine Fare taking great care purchasing groceries to prepare dinner for her guests. Additionally, she made regular appearances at the Faison Firehouse Theater, Minton’s Playhouse, Sylvia’s, the Red Rooster, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and at local elementary schools throughout Harlem. She was someone who treasured the Harlem community and was, in turn, treasured by it.
She leaves us a legacy of words, deeds and actions. Hundreds of millions of people have read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. This courageous story remains particularly moving given that the topic of rape and sexual abuse was rarely ever spoken or written about during Dr. Angelou’s generation. This universal work opened the door of conversation for many on this subject and it is regarded not only as an incredible literary accomplishment but also as a catalyst of awareness and advocacy. The poem—“Phenomenal Woman” quite possibly her magnum opus in prose—a work which has grown and transcended over the years into the “Black Woman’s National Anthem;” and she leaves us with the words of “A Brave And Startling Truth”—a poem—written on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations—that reveals exactly how we can achieve peace on this earth. She wrote:
When we come to it We, this people, on this wayward, floating body Created on this earth, of this earth Have the power to fashion for this earth A climate where every man and every woman Can live freely without sanctimonious piety Without crippling fear When we come to it We must confess that we are the possible We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world That is when, and only when We come to it.
In closing, I leave you again with the words of Dr. Angelou who—reflecting back upon her extraordinary existence—said: “My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still.