By Heather Pearson
Last week, the United States and South Africa mourned the 90th birthday of the late Maya Angelou and the recent death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Two famous and complex black activists, the passing of each carries differing meaning for different communities.
An activist, poet and brilliant writer, Maya Angelou has been hailed by individuals as widespread as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton as a black feminist whose words and activism continue to change lives. Angelou is most widely known for her celebrated novel “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which deals with the trauma and intersecting racism and sexim she experienced growing up as a black woman. Throughout her life, Angelou published countless books, essays, poems, plays, movies and more, battling institutional racism to become a highly acclaimed, genre-changing black female writer. She delivered the inaugural poem at Bill Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony in 1993, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, in 2011.
Beyond writing, Angelou was a powerful political activist. She knew Nelson Mandela, wrote about anti-colonial struggles in Africa, spent time with W.E.B Du Bois in Ghana, planned the Organization of Afro-American Unity alongside Malcolm X, served as director and raised huge amounts of funding for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference alongside Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph, developed a Freedom Budget For All Americans working to abolish poverty, and toured with the Poor People’s Campaign. She gave voice to survivors of sexual assault, women undergoing abortion, queer folks and sex workers, and her activism gave agency back to women. She recognized the hypocrisy within white feminist movements, and instead aligned herself with womanism — a movement committed to a set of qualities including strength, self-love, community, sexual fulfillment, gender equality, strategic inclusion of men, and the centering of women of color.
The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, South African anti-apartheid activist, was also mourned last week. Though often noted simply as the wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela was a powerful activist in her own right. President of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League in 1993, and member of Parliament, Mandela was a national figure in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa.
Madikizela-Mandela’s activism began when she declined a scholarship to study in the United States and chose to instead work as the first black medical social worker at a hospital in Johannesburg. As she became an active activist in the ANC, she was arrested several times by the apartheid regime for her advocacy and experienced solitary confinement and torture.
After her involvement in the Soweto uprisings, in which hundreds of students demonstrated against oppression and were met with extreme police brutality, Madikizela-Mandela was relocated and placed under house arrest, but she continued to find platforms to make public anti-apartheid statements. In 1985, her home was firebombed, yet she continued her activism, thus becoming known as the “Mother of the Nation.”
Later elected President of the ANC’s Women’s League, she also became Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa. She is widely revered as an activist who played a pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa, and her life has been turned into books, films and opera, and more.
The passing of these two powerful black female activists continues to be felt around the world, and their commitment to anti-oppression work continues to inspire action against the ongoing systems of institutional racism and inequity they fought.