Originally published on AskMissA May 29, 2014
The world woke up to the heart breaking news of the passing of one of the most beautiful souls of our time, Maya Angelou. The influential artist passed on May 28, 2014 at the age of 86. She was mostly known for her soul-stirring work as a writer and poet but was also praised for her work as an educator, playwright, activist, historian, producer, dancer, singer, actress, and director. Angelou’s fearless and bright spirit has inspired multiple generations to pursue their wildest ambitions.
Angelou’s first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, encapsulates her accounts as a young African American girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. In the tale of her nightmarish upbringing, she discloses her experience with abandonment, racism, rape, and teen pregnancy. Her personal story engaged a global audience, and she went on to narrate the rest of her life saga in six more books.
The author who was born in St. Louis, Missouri had temporary stints in Stamps, Oakland, San Francisco, New York, Cairo, and Accra before settling down in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A lover of linguistics she studied and mastered French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. Along with her veering travels, Angelou held a number of unorthodox jobs from a fry cook to a madam to editor of The Arab Observer to becoming the first African American woman streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
Angelou was nominated for a variety of prestigious awards including a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie and a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway production of Look Away. Despite never attending college, Dr. Angelou held more than 50 honorary degrees from universities around the country and received a lifetime Reynolds Professorship to teach American Studies at Wake Forest University. She won three Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word Album and was received the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
She’s supported the work of the great women who drive our country today, from mentoring Oprah Winfrey to campaigning for Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries; Angelou epitomizes a true feminist. She played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement working with the likes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. who asked her to serve as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The philanthropist also lent a hand in working for a number of non-profit organizations. In the words of her son Guy Johnson, “She speaks to our humanity and she reminds us that we are both brother and sister to the rest of the human race.” Angelou worked with Cheerful Givers, which provides birthday gift bags through shelters and food shelves to disadvantaged, needy children. She also worked with Hands On Nashville, a recognized leader in programs, partnerships and services that maximize volunteer impact for youth, adult, corporate, and nonprofit constituencies in the greater Nashville community.
Looking at the world through her lens has made us reevaluate the way we think, heal, forgive, and love. Maya Angelou was a phenomenal human being with unbreakable integrity, regarded with nothing less than the fondest admiration and utmost respect. The literary icon leaves behind a legacy that will undoubtedly live on to inspire the soul searching of generations to come. She will be deeply missed by the masses, rest in peace.
“How maddening it was to have been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur.”