Dr. Maya Angelou, a renowned and beloved poet, artist, dancer, singer and Civil Rights activist, died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Wednesday morning. She was 86.
Born on April 4, 1928, as Marguerite Ann Johnson, Dr. Angelou was a celebrated author whose life was chronicled in her award winning autobiographies and poems. She received over 20 honorary Doctoral Degrees during her career and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 1972. In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, by President Barack Obama. This is just a small sampling of her honors, and says nothing of the personal impact she had on many.
I feel blessed that I was inspired by the life of this beautiful woman.
Her poem, “Still I Rise” taught me to embrace my “womanness” and walk boldly with confidence. In it, she implored me to “walk like I’ve got oil wells pumping in my own backyard.” This statement was life-changing to a shy young girl, who’d rather keep her head in a book than be noticed amongst a crowd. I studied her work as an english major at San Francisco State University, and it made me proud to discuss the merits and contributions of an African American writer in a classroom where we discussed Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath.
I received her 2008 book of essays, Letter to my Daughter, as a gift from my own mother a few years ago. In it, Dr. Angelou wrote of travels to Africa as a young woman. I remember that her words were so vibrant and so rich with detail that I felt as though I was in Africa with her, walking among the open markets and feeling the vibrant textiles.
Her personal life was as colorful as her poems. She stood over 6-feet tall, had a wide smile and an unmistakable voice. She traveled all over the world, and before becoming a world-renowned writer, she had several jobs, including fry cook, prostitute, and night-club dancer. She was a journalist, an actor, writer, director, and producer.
As a writer, Dr. Maya Angelou showed me how to use my words to inspire others; and as a woman, she inspired me to live a life worth writing about.
I’d like to think that Heaven has become just a little more poetic today.