With the death of Maya Angelou at age 86 in her home in Winston Salem, N.C., America has lost an iconic voice. Hers is the deep, wise, calming speech of a celebrated poet, author, civil rights activist, artist, and intellectual whose eloquent musings on race, gender, and life were honored with a Pulitzer Prize nomination, three Grammys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here are the ways we will remember Angelou.
1. “The black woman’s poet laureate” and “The people’s poet"
Angelou was the first African-American woman to have read poetry at a presidential inauguration, earning her this honorific informal title. She composed and recited “On the Pulse of the Morning” for President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. The poem sold more than 1 million copies and its recording won a Grammy Award. Her poems have been called Anthems of African-Americans.
Speaking to NPR about Angelou’s iconic voice, Essence editor Patrik Henry Bass said, “You would hear that voice, and that voice would capture a humanity, and that voice would calm you in so many ways through some of the most significant challenges.”
2. Celebrated writer of prose
Angelou is best known for her 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” in which she wrote of her upbringing in St. Louis and Stamps, Ark., where she was subject to racism and violence at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and rape, at the age of 8, by her mother’s boyfriend. Angelou broke her silence on this painful topic with “Caged Bird,” which won her international acclaim, and went on to write more than 30 books.
3. Unsung civil rights leader
Less known is Angelou’s admirable work as a civil rights pioneer who helped Malcolm X establish an African American university and was enlisted by Martin Luther King Jr. to serve as a regional coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou carried on King’s legacy with her art, conveying powerful messages on race in her poems, memoirs, and essays. Angelou was scheduled to appear at Major League Baseball's Awards luncheon on May 30, where she was to be honored with the Beacon of Light award for her civil rights work.
4. Talented artist
In her early years, Angelou worked as a performer and artist, including powerful stints as a dancer, actress, film director, and producer. She was multi-talented and enthusiastic – as the Los Angeles Times writes, “She toured Europe as a singer in the opera 'Porgy and Bess,' danced with Alvin Ailey and recorded an album, 'Calypso Lady,' acted off-Broadway and joined the Harlem Writers Guild.”
5. Unparalleled intellectual
Above all, Angelou will be remembered as an unparalleled intellectual who left Americans with immense wisdom and moving commentary on race, gender, and life. For this, she has earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a National Medal of Arts, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, three Grammys, a Tony Award nomination, and more than 30 honorary degrees. Her iconic voice and wisdom will be remembered in her timeless quotes, including, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.