When death took Maya Angelou on Wednesday at the age of 86, it claimed a pioneer, stilled a pen for the ages, and silenced a voice for those who had none.
“My mission in life,” Angelou once said, “is not merely to survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Angelou accomplished that mission through what seemed to be a multitude of lifetimes that included a host of careers and a legion of trials and tribulations.
Primarily known as an essayist and a poet, Angelou is perhaps best remembered as the author of the autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and for the recitation of her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. At that event, she became the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration three decades earlier. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Angelou lived an epic life replete with magnificent triumph and horrifying tragedy. A former actress, prostitute, supper-club chanteuse, civil rights leader, and journalist, Angelou always identified herself as a teacher first and foremost. “I’m not a writer who teaches. I’m a teacher who writes,” she once said. “I see all those little faces and big eyes. Black and white. They look like sparrows in the nest. They look up with their eyes wide open, and I try to drop in everything I know.”
Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. She was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was 8. Later, when the man was killed by her uncles, she stopped talking for nearly five years. “I thought my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name,” she later recounted. “And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice could kill anyone.” It was during her five years of silence that she reportedly developed her love of books and literature, and a keen power of observation.
Those traits would serve her well later in life as she wrote seven autobiographies that detailed her unique journey. “All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival,” she later said. “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.”
A compatriot of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and an eyewitness to America’s most devastating race riots, Angelou was involved in both the American civil rights movement and the fight against apartheid in South Africa. It was in the wake of King’s assassination, which occurred on Angelou’s 40th birthday, that she embarked on her writing career. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969 to international acclaim.
In all, she would publish seven autobiographies, as well as numerous poems, plays, and screenplays for film and television. A prominent voice in the 20th century for African-American women, she is now widely recognized as the American poet laureate.
While she never completed high school, Angelou would go on to earn more than 30 honorary degrees, was addressed as “Dr. Angelou,” and was a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential,” she once said. “Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, been told, forgot—it’s all there,” she said. “Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure my experiences are positive.”