FILE - In this Nov. 3, 1971 file photo, Maya Angelou poses with a copy of her book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in Los Angeles. Angelou, a Renaissance woman and cultural pioneer, has died, Wake Forest University said in a statement Wednesday, May 28, 2014. She was 86. (AP Photo/File) ORG XMIT: NYDG116
Updated: June 30, 2014 12:55PM
Maya Angelou’s life story should be required reading for single black mothers.
Not because Angelou, who died on Wednesday at the age of 86, was anywhere near perfect. She was as flawed as the girls who push baby strollers against the traffic lights today.
But Angelou’s outsized life has positive lessons for young single mothers who are trying to find their way today.
First, she didn’t let media images dictate where she fit in.
Angelou was 6 feet tall at a time when women of her stature walked with slumped shoulders. She was a short-haired, dark-skinned dancer at a time when light-skinned women with long tresses were considered the standard of beauty.
Yet, she became a Tony-nominated stage actress, who once danced with Alvin Ailey and performed with the touring company for the iconic “Porgy & Bess.”
That she started her journey under tumultuous circumstances (her parents divorced when she was only 3) was enough of a disadvantage, but Angelou suffered the worst childhood trauma imaginable when raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7 or 8.
Despite suffering traumas that often prove to be emotionally crippling for many women, Angelou went on to live a life that was bigger than anything reality TV show producers could contrive.
Besides being a celebrated author, at different points in her career she was a dancer, writer, singer, actress and civil rights activist.
She also was adventurous and refused to live out her youth waiting for someone to take care of her and her child.
Before finding her niche, Angelou flipped burgers, shook her booty in bars, and even took a turn at being a hooker and a madam.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that single mothers line up at the strip clubs.
What I am suggesting though is that they stop sitting around waiting for something to happen. After all, life is like the shoe store. You keep trying styles until you find your fit.
As a single mother, Angelou faced the same obstacle that every single mother faces: She had the burden of molding a life while her own life was still being shaped.
She was 17 when she gave birth to a son, Guy.
In “From Gather Together in My Name,” an installment of her memoir, Angelou writes about a common malady of single mothers:
“I was hurt because they didn’t take me and my child to their bosom, and because I was a product of Hollywood upbringing and my own romanticism,” Angelou wrote.
It is the same “hurt” that a lot of young single mothers feel even when they don’t recognize the ache. No matter how many versions of “Real Housewives” television producers come up with, they still peddle false hopes and dreams.
Like Angelou, these women have to give up those illusions in order to find a real life.
Obviously, Angelou will be remembered by most for her prestigious achievements.
I will always treasure “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” because by revealing the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, Angelou opened the door to emotional healing for a lot of girls.
Although most of Angelou’s early memoirs were written in the 1960s and early ’70s, her sentiments on black motherhood ring just as true today.
For instance, in “Heart of a Woman,” Angelou observes that the black mother “questions whether she loves her children enough — or more terribly, does she love them too much?”
Angelou’s openness about her own mistakes gave many of us the courage to confront our worst fears as black mothers.
That’s the gift she leaves behind for a future generation.
Despite the challenging circumstances some young black women find themselves, they, too, can be overcomers.