A country mourns after learning that poet Maya Angelou has died in her home at the age of 86. For millions, Dr. Angelou was the voice of the history of segregationist south as the author of the memoir “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” But her life and legacy stretched far beyond poet and author, to activist for civil rights, women’s rights and the soul of our nation.
“Before she hit 40 she had been a professional dancer, prostitute, madam, lecturer, activist, singer and editor,” reported The Guardian in a 2009 interview with Angelou. “She had lived in Ghana and Egypt, toured Europe with a dance troupe and settled in pretty much every region of the United States.” She gave birth as a teen, and broke barriers all throughout her life from being a female street car driver to a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, newspaper editor and eventual Medal of Freedom winner.
She was also a survivor of sexual assault, silent for years as a young child because she was convinced her testimony led to a man’s death. When she began speaking again, she never stopped, producing memoirs, poems, speaking at presidential inaugurations and garnering over 50 doctorates despite never going to college.
Angelou spoke on page, she spoke out loud, and she spoke freely and strongly to any audience. Here are just a few memorable examples:
“And Still I Rise”
“Does my sassiness upset you?” Angelou recites one of her best known poems, an anthem of pride and confidence that overcomes a historical legacy of racial oppression.
“On the Pulse of Morning”
Recited at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, Angelou’s evocation for a country united and at peace with itself and the world.
Angelou tells of her childhood sexual assault, the trauma that made her go silent for years, and how she eventually found the courage to speak again.
Angelou’s audience wasn’t just adults. Watch her sing on Sesame Street, where she helps children examine and express pride in being themselves.
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