Maya Angelou died on May 28 in her Winston Salem, North Carolina home. The death of beloved poet, writer, activist, actress, humanitarian, and phenomenal woman is a personal loss to many. Although Angelou was 86, for those who were educated through her wisdom and inspired by her poetry and humanitarian love, her passing is much too soon.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, acclaimed as a global renaissance woman, Angelou authored an autobiographical series containing seven books. She also wrote three essay and several poetry books. As a documentary film director and actress, Angelou has an impressive list of plays, movies, and television credits including a scene-stealing role in Alex Haley’s 1977 miniseries, Roots, and most recently, as a wise elder in Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion.
In sharing her triumphs over some of life’s most devastating tragedies, Angelou helped many to find their own voices and strengths. In 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first in her autobiographical series, was published. It foretold of a childhood tragedy where at age seven, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After telling of the incident, the rapist was beaten to death by a mob of neighbors.
“My 7-and-a-half-year old logic deduced that my voice had killed him,” Angelou said in many interviews on the controversial book and subject of sexual abuse.
“So, I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she added.
Through this silence Angelou found her poetic voice. In an Associated Press interview, Angelou said she started reading at age seven-and-a-half when a woman in her town took her to a black school library. “And I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it,” she said. She began writing poetry at age nine.
“I loved the poetry that was sung about in the black church: ‘Go Down Moses, way down to Egypt Land,'” Angelou said. “It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking.”
Angelou dropped out of high school at age 14 and became San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later returned to finish high school and at age 17, a few weeks after graduation, she gave birth as a single mother to her only child and son, Guy Johnson.
Angelou’s life and career paths were divergent and colorful. She worked as a waitress, nightclub dancer, singer, and stage actress. In the 1960’s she was a journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the days of decolonization. While in Ghana, she met and began working with Malcolm X.
After returning to America, in 1964, working closely with Dr. King, she became active in the Civil Rights Movement. She spoke at least six languages. On her writings, Angelou was quoted often as saying, “I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages into a book of mine before she realizes she is reading.”
Angelou’s distinctive and thought provoking poetry garnered her the honor of composing and reciting a poem for and at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. In 2000, President Clinton awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Arts. On Feb. 15, 2011, President Obama awarded Angelou the Nation’s highest civilian honor, The Medal of Freedom. Angelou received many awards and honors, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die, a Tony Award nomination for her 1973 role in the play, “Look Away,” and three Grammys for her spoken word albums.
Although Angelou never attended college, she was awarded more than 30 honorary doctoral degrees. She served as a Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982. One of Angelou’s most famous quotes is: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
For many, Maya Angelou made them feel like they could overcome anything in life and be their best selves. Her voice maybe silenced, but her literary works, like the immortal words of her famous poem, “Still I Rise,” will live on to inspire generations to come:
I am a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.