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Maya Angelou: A Life Well Lived

“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.”

I love this quote from the recently deceased (May 28, 2014) Maya Angelou, the great American poet, memoirist, civil rights activist, dramatist, educator, producer, actress, dancer, historian, filmmaker, and a woman whom I consider to be one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time. Today (April 4th) would have been her 89th birthday and I wish she was still alive to share her words of wisdom.

Born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, she is most known for the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This joyous and painful coming of age book was begun in the 1950’s when she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. It was published in 1969 and is an autobiography of her early years. The book received international acclaim, won the National Book Award in 1970, remained on the New York Times best sellers list for two years, and made literary history as the first non-fiction best seller written by an African American woman.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been used in many educational settings but has also been banned in many schools because of the controversy of her revealing that she had been sexually abused. So traumatized by the rape and subsequent murder of the attacker by her uncle, she became mute for many years. In the course of the book, Maya transforms from a victim of rape and racism into a self-possessed, dignified young woman capable of responding to prejudice. I have heard her read excerpts from this and other books on NPA and her rich, melodic voice always held me captive (literally: I listen to NPR in the car).

“If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.” She was a multi-talented person. During WWII she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School. In 1944, at the age of 16, she gave birth to a son and took on a number of jobs to support herself and her son. In 1952 she wed a Greek sailor Anastasios Angelopus. When she began her career as a nightclub singer, she took the professional name Maya Angelou, combining her childhood nickname with a form of her husband’s name. Although the marriage didn’t last, the name stuck. She toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess in 1954 and 1955, and performed off-Broadway in Calypso Heat Wave in 1957 and The Blacks in 1961. After this play, she changed course and went to Egypt and Ghana, working as a freelance writer and editor. After returning to the United States she developed a friendship with James Baldwin and began writing in earnest.

In 1971, Angelou published the Pulitzer Prize nominated poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die. In 1972 she wrote Georgia, Georgia, the first screenplay to be produced by an African American Woman. She went on to earn a Tony Award nomination for her role in Look Away in 1973 and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television mini-series Roots in 1977. She later wrote the poem On the Pulse of the Morning which she recited at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993; which she received a Grammy Award for the audio version of the poem. She has received many honors throughout her career, including the Chicago International Film Festivals 1998 Audience Choice Award, the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999, two NAACP Image Awards (2005 and 2009) in the outstanding literary work category, and is a holder of 50 honorary Doctorate degrees.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” She took her own words to heart and was a prolific writer: 16 books of poetry, 11 autobiographies, 5 children’s books, 2 cookbooks and 1 book on religion. Dr. Angelou’s words, spoken on the printed page, promoted self-examination, equality and friendship. She believed that “we are more alike than unalike” and that “everybody born comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory”.

Maya Angelou was close friends with many well-known figures in history and celebrities. President Barack Obama called her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” After experiencing health issues for several years, Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014 at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

On your birthday dear Maya Angelou, I’d like to celebrate your life - a life well lived.

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