The passing of Maya Angelou today reminds us all of the unlimited potential each one of us carries inside. The high school dropout who became a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University once stated, “I have created myself, I have taught myself so much.” In many ways she epitomized the American Dream.
She is best known for her debut novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) a story about a coming-of-age that illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma.
At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou’s uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone …” According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography about Angelou, it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.
Angelou used her autobiography to explore subjects such as identity, rape, racism, and literacy. She also wrote in new ways about women’s lives in a male-dominated society. Her immense curiosity of the world saw her produce plays, poetry, cookbooks, children’s books and adaptions for television. She wrote a total of 36 books.
She published her seventh autobiography Mom & Me & Mom in 2013, at the age of 85.
In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Her recitation resulted in more fame and recognition for her previous works, and broadened her appeal “across racial, economic, and educational boundaries”
South African leader Nelson Mandela read aloud Angelou’s poem, Still I Rise, at his 1994 presidential inauguration.
On the news of her death, tributes were paid by Barack Obama, who called her “one of the brightest lights of our time” and “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman” and Bill Clinton, who described her works as “gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace.” Harold Augenbraum, from the National Book Foundation, said that Angelou’s “legacy is one that all writers and readers across the world can admire and aspire to.”
Her life is encapsulated in her own words, “All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.”