Angelou understands that part of her role is to be a leader (which encompasses more than the idea of "role model" although it certainly parallels it in many ways this idea) by asking others to be attentive to language. For example, in an interview for the Paris Review, she said:
When I'm writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we're capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I'm trying for that. But I'm also trying for the language. I'm trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language. (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2279/the-art-of-fiction-no-119-maya-angelou)
This is a woman who understands that language can and must be used to tell the details of each person's life (and especially those people who are most often disregarded by society) while also bringing people together. Language can speak the most detailed truths, and yet also simultaneously tell the broadest truths of humanity.
This is a fine line to walk, one noted by Lirola (2002) and Danahay (1991). . Angelou argues for resistance in the sense that she does not think that anyone should be allowed to have another person or another community suppress the truth of any individual. But she also argues that oppressed groups need to be careful not simply to reject the tools of mainstream America (or whatever nation in which they live) but to choose which tools are most effective for them.
Using powerful language and the specific appeals of poetry are ways in which Angelou herself uses tools that many would see as belonging to white America to speak her own truths, while also connecting her truths to those of others. Angelou describes how she sees this strategy playing out in her writings:
Human beings are more alike than unalike. There's no real mystique. Every human being, every Jew, Christian, backslider, Muslim, Shintoist, Zen Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, every human being wants a nice place to live, a good place for the children to go to school, healthy children, somebody to love, the courage, the unmitigated gall to accept love in return, someplace to party on Saturday or Sunday night, and someplace to perpetuate that God. There's no mystique. None. And if I'm right in my work, that's what my work says. (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2279/the-art-of-fiction-no-119-maya-angelou)
Angelou, who was born in St. Louis in 1928, has received numerous awards for her poetry and other writing and much also well-earned praise for her work as a civil rights activist and teacher. Less well-known to most is her work in the visual arts as a film and television producer and director, although the highly visual nature of her written work can be seen to tie in quite directly to work in the visual arts.
Her ties to one of the great social movements of recent generations, that of the Civil Rights Movement that gained unstoppable momentum in the 1960s, began at least as far back as the 1950s, when she was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, a group that championed equal political participation and access for African-Americans as well as an emphasis on the authentic of black writers telling the stories of black communities. Although the group, like essentially all Civil Rights groups, slighted the experiences of women, it was an important starting point for her because the group emphasized the equal importance of artistic expression. Politics mattered: Politics mattered substantially. Politics were vital. But the importance of the message that these writers wished to send out into the world was that style and artistry mattered too.
Angelou's poetry speaks to people across the world, and especially to women who must often feel that they have no time to look up from their work, to pause from their work to listen to poetry, much less to think that they might be able to be the subjects or the creators of poetry them. She asks people to believe that each one of us has a claim to the great moral qualities of humanity such as courage. She writes of this in "On the Pulse of Morning," the poem she wrote for and read at President Clinton's inauguration.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot ...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours -- your Passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
In speaking to people who are oppressed, Angelou is careful never to blame them for being oppressed, but rather to remind them that resistance comes in all shapes and that even the smallest increase in freedom is a good thing. The cadence of her poetry can echo that of traditional black spirituals, and even though she is not referencing this expressive form she is implicitly invoking it. Thus in her poetry we hear the refrain of probably the most popular theme in the spirituals of the slave-holding South, that of Moses leading his people to the promised land.
She tells her readers that the search for dignity and equality and courage and respect is a long journey. It may well be more than forty years in the desert, and it may well be that the generation that begins the journey is not the generation that will set foot in the Promised Land. Any individual may not make what seems (either internally or from the outside) to be much progress, but that does not make them a failure.
Angelou has said in a number of interviews how grateful she is for the success that she has had, especially in getting to be only the second poet ever to write for a presidential inaugural. But she also wants her readers to know that success is most accurately measured in the small actions of everyday life:
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, and into Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Because, for Angelou, in the end it is what is simple that matters.