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Maya Angelou: A Phenomenal Woman

The Pioneering Poet, Artist, and Activist Dies at age 86

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President Barack Obama awards Maya Angelou with the Medal of Honor in 2011

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I was deeply saddened today to hear of Dr. Maya Angelou’s passing at her home at age 86.  Her work has impacted so many during her long and influential career.
 

Earlier today, Angelou’s family released the following statement: “Dr. Maya Angelou passed quietly in her home before 8:00 a.m. EST. Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”

I first encountered Angelou’s work as middle schooler. I was a shy bookish girl who voraciously and indiscriminately read everything, but around the seventh grade I began to wonder, “Where are the books about people like me?” Up to that point I hadn’t really read anything about working class black girls coming of age. When I got my hands on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, so much of resonated with my own life. I became a lifelong fan of Angelou’s work.

Her work also encouraged me to move through the world fiercely, with my head held high. For example, she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic admiration.” Angelou’s unapologetic praise of Black womanhood not only shaped my own coming of age, but that of so many other women. And her work, whether it was her many memoirs, her poetry, collections of essays, and numerous essays, helped to usher in the Black Women’s Literary Renaissance, along other literary greats such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and they sent her to Arkansas with her brother Bailey. It was her beloved Bailey who gave her the nickname,  “Maya.” Angelou and her brother were raised by their grandmother, a devout Christian, in rural Stamps, Arkansas. After a being assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7, Angelou withdrew into a world of silence, rarely speaking for the next 5 years. During this time, she was a voracious reader, a fact that would lay the foundation for her writing and artistry for years to come. She gave birth to her only son, Guy Johnson, when she was 16. As an adult, Angelou had almost every job imaginable. She was a streetcar conductor, sex worker, nightclub performer, actress, journalist, civil rights activist, playwright, film director, and college professor.  She has been a faculty member at Wake Forest University in North Carolina since 1981 and has been a highly regarded public speaker in the last decades of her life. (Source)

Maya Angelou was fairly active on social media, recently tweeting her thoughts about the fate of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls still missing after several weeks. Angelou’s last tweet was a poignant and timely message: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might her the voice of God.” Ashe—so shall it be. Rest in peace and power, Dr. Angelou.

 

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