May 28, 2014 at 8:00 pm

In Appreciation

Cultural icon Maya Angelou's life lessons 'will go on for generations'

She was an internationally renowned writer, chosen by presidents to deliver poetry at inaugurations with a resonant contralto that took no prisoners.

But when the Detroit Public Schools called last year to see if Maya Angelou would talk to their educators before the beginning of the school year, they were surprised at how readily she agreed. Carmen Perry, an instructional specialist at the Detroit International Academy for Young Women, is a “huge fan” who regularly rereads Angelou’s 1969 memoir “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”

“She talked about the passion for teaching, and how it actually ripples out and goes to the next person, and comes full circle back to you,” Perry says. Angelou used her Uncle Willie as an example, an uneducated man who nonetheless made sure the children knew their multiplication tables. Over the years she met many people helped by Willie, whom she termed “a rainbow in the clouds.”

Angelou died Wednesday morning at her Winston-Salem, N.C., home. She inspired many with her gutsy, poetic memoirs of a hardscrabble childhood beset with tragedy, including a rape at age 7.

But in her writing and her life, Angelou chose to transcend pain and poverty. “Surviving is important,” she once said. “Thriving is elegant.”

During her lifetime, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, three Grammys for her spoken-word poetry albums, and the National Book Awards’ Literarian Award.

As a child, rejected by her mother, Angelou was sent to live with her Arkansas grandmother. Later she was a dancer in a strip club, a singer, and a fry cook. At 16, she was San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor. Billie Holiday once told Angelou that she would be famous, “but not for your singing.”

At 86, Angelou embraced social media. Her last, eerily prophetic Tweet on May 23: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

Accolades poured in on Wednesday. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy said in a statement: “Dr. Maya Angelou was a towering cultural figure — a woman of courage and strength. She took the music of the heart and transformed it into words and imagery that moved my heart and the world’s. She was a true friend. I will miss her.”

Aretha Franklin recalled another of Angelou’s roles, as a cookbook author: “So sorry to hear about the passing of such a great woman. In addition to ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,’ I loved her recipes and manner! Wisdom at work! Enlightening for a nation!”

Angelou’s lyrical writing also had a deep influence on former Detroit News columnist Betty DeRamus, who posted on her Facebook page: “Maya’s words had such powerful wings, I was able to climb aboard them and fly. Because of her, I knew that one day I’d dance, sing, write, pound drums, explore continents, escape cages and find my lost dark self.”

That sonorous, mother-to-all voice, kind and yet commanding, was one of Angelou’s most potent weapons.

She told the Detroit educators about an chance encounter she had with a famous rapper on the set of the 1993 movie “Poetic Justice.” There was a scuffle between several actors that Angelou walked into. “She said, ‘Son, did you need to do that?’ That voice would automatically just calm you, and she calmed him down,” recalls Perry. Later on someone asked her, ‘Did you know who you were talking to? That was Tupac Shakur.’ Using her mother wit and her voice, she let him see the situation here is not about all of this. He came back and thanked her for that.”

Angelou is invoked often by the middle schoolers at Detroit’s International Academy. They sing empowering Katy Perry lyrics, and “They use a lot of Maya Angelou,” Perry says.

“If they’re feeling lonely or sad, they’ll think of Maya Angelou,” Perry says. “She is definitely going to be missed, but her life lessons will go on for generations.”

Maya Angelou socializes during a garden party at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. in 2010. / Nell Redmond / AP