TIME obituary

Maya Angelou: A Hymn to Human Endurance

Maya Angelou in 1996.
Maya Angelou in 1996. Chuck Burton—AP

Remembering a life of relentless creativity.

When Maya Angelou was 16 she became not only the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco but the first woman conductor. By the time she was 40 she had also been, in no particular order, a cook, a waitress, a madam, a prostitute, a dancer, an actress, a playwright, an editor at an English-language newspaper in Egypt, and a Calypso singer (her one album is entitled “Miss Calypso.”) It wasn’t until 1970, when she was 41, that she became an author: her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, told the story of her life up to the age of 17. That remarkable life story ended today at the age of 86.

In her last years Angelou’s work became associated with a certain easy, commercial sentimentality—she loaned her name to a line of Hallmark cards, for example—but there was nothing easy about her beginnings. She was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was 3. When she was 7 her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She testified against him in court, but before he could be sentenced he was found beaten to death in an alley. Angelou’s response to the trauma was to become virtually mute – she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak in public for the next 5 years. She often cited this silent period as a time when she became intimately aware of the written word.

Angelou eventually regained her voice, but her life remained chaotic. She became a mother at 17, immediately after graduating high school. She bounced from city to city, job to job and spouse to spouse (she picked up the name Angelou from one of her husbands; “Maya” was her brother’s nickname for her). She spent years living in Egypt and then in Ghana. By the time she was 40 her life story and her distinctive, charismatic way with words had her friends—among them James Baldwin—begging her to write it all down. She finally did.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Angelou describes herself as “a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” Although generations of high school students have been assigned it, the book’s unsparing account of black life in the South during the Depression, and of her sexual abuse, is not easy reading. It is Angelou’s tough, funny, lyrical voice that transforms her story from a litany of isolation and suffering into a hymn of glorious human endurance. That extraordinary voice—dense, idiosyncratic, hilarious, alive—brought novelistic techniques to the task of telling a life story, and its influence on later generations of memoirists, from Maxine Hong Kingston to Elizabeth Gilbert, is incalculable. (Angelou also mixed fact and fiction, unapologetically, long before James Frey.) The themes she expounded in Caged Bird, of suffering and self-reliance, would be braided through the rest of her long life’s work. “All my work, my life, everything is about survival,” Angelou said. “All my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.’ In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for a National Book Award, and it was followed by a torrent of creative output in every possible medium. Angelou wrote five more volumes of autobiography and six books of poetry. She was nominated for an Emmy for playing Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in Roots. She wrote children’s books and essays and the lyrics to a musical, King. She acted in movies and even directed one, Down in the Delta. She took to the national stage in 1993 when she read a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Clinton’s inauguration.

Angelou’s energy was enormous and her activity incessant. Though her education stopped after high school, she held a lifetime professorship at Wake Forest and collected honorary degrees from 50 more colleges and universities. She lectured 80 times a year. From 1981 on she lived in a brick house in Winston-Salem; despite her various marriages she lived alone, and her first child was also her last. A commanding figure at 6 ft. tall, she rose at 4 or 5 every morning and went to a bare room at a nearby motel to work, alone with a stack of legal pads, a Bible, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a bottle of sherry.

Her relentless creativity didn’t balk at her own obituary, and as usual she put it better than anyone else could have. “What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love,” Angelou told an interviewer in 1985. “By love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings.”

TIME

You Have the Right to Be Forgotten

A European court has upheld an increasingly precious principle

On March 5, 2010, a lawyer named Mario Costeja González lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency against a newspaper called La Vanguardia. Twelve years earlier, González’s house had been auctioned off to pay his social security debts, and La Vanguardia ran a brief article about it. The article was factually accurate, but González felt it was no longer relevant to his life. He wasn’t happy that it came up when you Googled him either, so he added Google to the complaint for good measure.

The Spanish Data Protection Agency dismissed the complaint against La Vanguardia but–astoundingly–it supported the complaint against Google and asked it to remove the article from its search results. An understandably incredulous Google took the issue to Spain’s National High Court, which turned for advice to the highest legal authority in the European Union, the Court of Justice in Luxembourg. On May 13, contrary to the expectations of Google and virtually everybody else except maybe González, the Court of Justice affirmed the original decision, concluding that a person should be able to demand that a search engine remove links “on the ground that that information may be prejudicial to him or that he wishes it to be ‘forgotten’ after a certain time.” In doing so, the court endorsed a relatively new addition to the catalog of human rights: it’s being called the right to be forgotten.

Make no mistake, this is a watershed moment in human history: mankind, after spending untold millennia looking for ways to be remembered by posterity, must now beg to be forgotten instead. It puts one in mind of the Cumaean Sibyl, who, after being granted a lifespan of a thousand years by Apollo, longed only to die. To the list of things that our ancestors would have found utterly unintelligible about the way we live now we can add, right next to the epidemic of obesity, its informational equivalent: an epidemic of memory.

Apart from the eurovision song contest, it’s hard to think of anything more quintessentially European than the Court of Justice’s ruling. It wouldn’t, and won’t ever, happen in the U.S., where the First Amendment is holy writ and, as such, tends to outweigh the right to privacy and people’s feelings about their embarrassing real estate auctions. Moreover, we Americans are more apt than Europeans to bow in fear and awe before the aura of entitlement that emanates from Silicon Valley. The idea of allowing a mere private citizen to violate the integrity of Google’s sacred cache is more or less unthinkable.

Not surprisingly, the ruling hasn’t been universally popular. Google issued a statement calling it “disappointing.” The New York Times editorial board came out against it on the grounds that it “could undermine press freedoms and free speech.” Index on Censorship, an international organization promoting freedom of expression, was blunter: “This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books.” (It’s not, actually: no one’s pulping the original data, just the links to them.)

It’s an open question whether the Court of Justice’s ruling can even be enforced. The prospect of deciding, case by case, what is or isn’t relevant and to whom is daunting, expensive and philosophically fraught. If a politician has a sketchy past, can he or she get links to it taken down? Or is the right to be forgotten outweighed by the public’s need to be informed? And the court’s ruling doesn’t just affect Google; it applies to all search engines, and who knows who else. Facebook, the archive of humanity’s collective embarrassing past, should be concerned.

Whether or not its ruling is enforceable, the Court of Justice has hit upon an elusive truth about the way we live now, one that’s probably easier to see from Luxembourg than it is from Mountain View. Public information isn’t just public: the meaning of public has changed. Just as we’re altering the physical climate we live in, we’ve changed our information environment too. Information used to propagate slowly, pooling and collecting in some places but not others. Now it propagates instantly and evenly, everywhere at once. The past is supposed to fade and blur, but the Internet keeps our entire lives relentlessly in focus, for everyone, forever.

The Court of Justice has reminded us that we don’t necessarily have to accommodate ourselves to technology; we can demand that technology adapt itself to us. Just because something is technologically feasible, and part of a business plan, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. In a way it’s too late for González: no one’s ever going to forget about that real estate auction now. Nevertheless his point stands: the past isn’t what it used to be. But maybe it should be.

TIME Surveillance

The New Cop on the Beat May Be a Bot

Knightscope K5 promises enhanced policing capabilities, courts controversy

Have we as a species learned nothing from Robocop?

A Silicon Valley company called Knightscope is currently testing a prototype robot designed to detect and monitor criminal activity, much the way a police officer or a security guard would.

The Knightscope K5 is a five-foot-tall autonomous robot (one presumes that its resemblance to a Dalek is merely coincidental) that roams around your neighborhood, observing and gathering data and trying to predict where and when criminal activity will occur.

It carries no weaponry, but it has a pretty complete sensor package that includes thermal imaging, license plate reading and facial recognition.

This takes public surveillance a step beyond stationary cameras, and the challenges to personal privacy are clear. The K5 could do a whole lot of good by deterring crime, especially in neighborhoods that lack the resources to field an adequate police presence.

But where do you draw the line?

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser