Rarely in life is there a person who shines brightly in a multitude of areas. Singer, dancer, activist, writer, historian, teacher…Maya Angelou was a widely talented force to be reckoned with. A woman of true virtue, grace, and panache, she inspired millions in various areas of life yet she maintained an unassuming nature throughout her own. She walked amongst kings and presidents and was privileged with dozens of honorary degrees yet she only had a high school education.
She had a true gift with words which is how most remember her. Her proud, sassy poem “Phenomenal Woman” made the world take a step back and admire the strength and beauty of women. And, of course, her first memoir of many, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was the first of its kind, unveiling the raw ingredients of a childhood and adolescence that was marked by a developing black Southern faith and colored by sexual abuse. It was a book that has become a staple in high school English classes showing yet again the positive influence Angelou had not only on American culture but on the English language as a whole.
Her later works would cement Angelou as a voice for the rights of women, blacks, and all citizens of her world. If she planned to make the world a better place, I think she accomplished that many times over with the numerous lives she impacted. With her gentle spirit and resounding eloquence, Maya Angelou paved the way for many others.
Maya Angelou had the privilege of reciting her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She was the second poet in history to do so. Even before this historic moment in her life, she had made her powerful stamp on poetry. Poet and photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis credits Angelou for his work Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems. In an interview with Salon, the poet describes the great orator’s ability to enact “tough and tender care, opinion and truth…with the entire experience of her whole body not just her mind”. Dunikki White, also known as Atmosphere the Poet, declares that when she came across Angelou’s works in high school they influenced her to start writing her own.
Of course, Angelou in her profound wisdom played the role of teacher with the world as her pupils. However, she was also the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University bringing her into the classroom on a personal level. Dr. Nick Norwood, creative writing professor at Columbus State University, says that a great deal of his students chose their majors as English due to Angelou’s influence. Mercer University professor Chester Fontenot describes Maya Angelou as both a mentor and a friend. The professor recalled Angelou having told him how to find discipline in his work and “it helped me mentally to advance in my career and be productive”. Retired educator and counselor, Barbara Clark, claims to have a 35-year influence from Angelou, remarking that upon meeting the activist at a poetry convention “she left you with the impression that anything is possible”.
While wearing so many hats, Maya Angelou also managed to make an impact on the film industry as an actress in the TV miniseries Roots, a playwright in Georgia, Georgia which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and making history as the first African American woman to direct a major feature film with Down in the Delta. While those stints may have been few and far between, she still impacts the industry through others. Oprah Winfrey, an icon in her own right, renowned as an actress and TV personality, stated that Maya Angelou served as her “mentor, mother/sister, and friend since my 20’s.” Actor and director, Tyler Perry took to social media to describe Angelou as among a “handful of people in my life who have moved me, inspired me, encouraged me, and helped mold the man I am today.” Actress Gabourey Sidibe who has weathered her own issues with being a black woman in the film industry gleaned this take-home message from observing Angelou receive Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year Award: “Be beautiful for yourself first. Then you can be beautiful for anyone else who has the good sense to see it.”
As the author of seven autobiographies that chronicle her life across different periods and with focus on varying themes, Maya Angelou’s impact on literature is widespread. Although she was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, and then, the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, she has certainly offered forth a benchmark for even these two on penning memoirs. Other writers ranging from novelists to screenwriters cite inspirations from the phenomenal woman herself—award-winning author Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks, and author Terry McMillan. Feminist writer and first black woman to be the President of Harvard Lampoon, Alexis Wilkinson recalls reading Angelou’s works in school and them being the first to ever make her feel proud of her identity. In a special feature by Cosmopolitan, Wilkinson goes on to say: Dr. Angelou to me represents both pride in oneself and ultimate humility, a balance that is so delicate and beautiful that its produce can only be love.”
Perhaps begun from growing up in racist Alabama or fueled during her work done for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Maya Angelou lived a life that was dedicated to gaining equal rights for women and African Americans. Rev. Al Sharpton recalled her making a presence at a civil rights meeting regarding affirmative action in the 1990’s: she told those congregated there, “the first problem is you don’t have women in here of equal status. We need to correct you before you can correct the country.” She was fair yet she told it like it was and inspired many to think similarly. She was a woman personable in nature who maintained friendships with historical figures such as Malcolm X, Coretta Scott King, and Nelson Mandela.
2. Victims of Sexual Abuse
The utter rawness and truth revealed in her groundbreaking work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings plummeted Maya Angelou into literary stardom and gained her the respect of other great writers. Although the work did receive attacks for its poignant and open portrayal of rape and teen pregnancy, most saw it as a breath of fresh air. Hers was the first memoir to share such a personal account of sexual abuse and race relations during that period in American history. Since her honest and heartfelt revelation, numerous other celebrities have come forward with claims of past sexual abuse, her friend Oprah Winfrey included. While some admonished her initially, it’s a worthy thought that many who have found release through words about terrible traumas may not have found the courage had Maya not gone before them so prodigiously.
Long before the world would know her as an outstanding writer of poetry, plays, and books, in the 1950’s, Maya Angelou was a calypso singer. She once spoke of her relationship of this art form: “music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between notes and curl my back to loneliness.” Yet, her impact on music went far beyond the Harry Belafonte- inspired renditions she performed in San Francisco nightclubs. Angelou also had a profound impact on the hip hop community. Her works have been recreated in many forms by other artists such as Alicia Keys’ “Caged Bird”, Tupac’s “Still I Rise”, Kanye West’s “Hey Mama”, and Common’s “The Dreamer”. Legendary music maker Quincy Jones with whom she collaborated on the soundtrack of For Love of Ivy (1968),recounted that “as an author and poet, Maya Angelou’s ability to channel God’s voice and express the feeling deep within all of humanity will never be matched by another.”
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