Today the nation mourns the passing of a national treasure, Dr. Maya Angelou, who has died at the age of 86. Considering today’s low-barrier of entry into modern celebrity, her fame as a poet was as refreshing as it was far-reaching. Her writing and poetry touched the lives of millions - many of whom were introduced to Angelou in high school, through her acclaimed 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book deals with themes not typically found in the required reading lists of suburban middle class high schools: racisim, rape, and teenage pregnancy. But her story’s success was a hallmark of her greatest gift - the ability to use language to transcend barriers.
The details of Angelou’s early life have been the subject of countless high school essays, but her incredible journey bears repeating. At the age of three, her parents divorced and she and her brother were sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. At eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After she revealed to her family that she had been assaulted, her attacker was killed. The news of the murder shocked Angelou into silence for the next six years, during which she would communicate only by scribbling messages on a tablet she kept on her hip. During that time, she cultivated a love for writing and reading, working her way through the shelves of her school library and falling in love especially with poetry. (At one point she memorized 75 Shakespearean sonnets.)
When she finally emerged from silence, she did so with aplomb, focusing her energy on dance and theater. At age 16, however, her plans were put on hold when she gave birth to her son, Guy. Eventually, she rekindled her stage career and, by the mid-50s, she was touring around the world as part of a production of Porgy and Bess.
Her life story intertwined sadly with two of the Civil Rights movement’s largest figures: Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King. She met Malcolm X while teaching at the University of Ghana’s School of Music And Drama. In 1964, she returned with him to the U.S. to help establish the Organization of African American Unity. One year later, he was assassinated. Soon after that, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her to help coordinate the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On the day she turned 40, she was preparing a meal for her party when a friend told her that King had been killed. The news was so devastating that she stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward.
An author of over 30 best sellers, it's undeniable that Angelou was a literary powerhouse, but her long lasting popularity was due in large part to her knack for staying relevant over the decades - never reinventing herself, but always finding new ways to communicate with the world around her. For example, Angelou's screenplay for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia was one of the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed. She appeared frequently in film and on television, many times as a guest of Oprah Winfrey, who she befriended in the 1970s and mentored over the decades.
Angelou remained politically active through the years, recently receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama and later voicing her support for Hillary Clinton. But one of her greatest highlights came in January 1993, when she recited the poem "On the Pulse of the Morning," which she wrote for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. It was the first time a poem was recited at such a ceremony since Robert Frost delivered "The Gift Outright" at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Standing at the podium at the West Front of the Capitol, her voice broadcasted around the world, the once shy and speechless Angelou shared her words of optimism and hope with millions:
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply