Dr. Angelou, reading her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.

As I booted up my laptop today and logged onto the Internet from my hotel room in Germany, I was greeted by the most depressing news: author, poet, activist, and just plain wonderful human being Dr. Maya Angelou had passed away. Dr. Angelou, who had been teaching at Wake Forest University since 1982 and was a prolific writer and poet throughout her life, had been experiencing health problems recently and had had to cancel several scheduled events because of it. She was 86 years old at the time of her passing.

Immediately I felt  a horrific sense of loss. I never met Dr. Angelou, nor have I read as much of her work as I’d have liked to. But I remembered very vividly reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings one summer for school a few years back, along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Both books impacted me very deeply and I remember feeling powerful emotions reading Dr. Angelou’s book as I read the events based on her early life experiences, sadness and sympathy and anger and several others depending on what story she was relating to me through her words. It left a very deep impression on me.

And so when I heard that Dr. Angelou had died, I immediately felt the loss that people around the world are probably feeling at this moment. I took to Facebook to write that the world has lost a guiding light in Dr. Angelou, that her passing was swift and painless, and that her memory, words and deeds will last for centuries. But somehow I felt it wasn’t enough, so I decided to write this post about her as soon as I could. Hence this post you are reading now.

Dr. Angelou was an influence for good throughout the world. She worked her way up from a variety of jobs, including a cook, prostitute and nightclub dancer, to become a writer and journalist. Active in the Civil Rights movement, she worked with both Dr. King and Malcolm X, and has also influenced the feminist movement. Her writing has been hailed as “a work of art that eludes description”, and helped bring memoirs from African-American women writers from the margins of literature to the forefront. She made on average eighty public appearances a year, even as she reached her eighties, and was given numerous doctorates and awards, including reciting a poem of hers at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2011. In addition to poetry and autobiographies, Dr. Angelou wrote plays, screenplays for TV and film, essays, cookbooks, children’s books, spoken word albums, and also did acting and directing work on stage and in film and TV.

But most importantly, she gave people a voice. Dr. Angelou gave voices to many African-Americans, women, and others who had been pushed to the margins of society. Caged Bird, probably Dr. Angelou’s most famous autobiography, has been translated into many different languages. This is not only a testament to the popularity of the book, but also to how relatable it is to people of other nations and cultures, how many different peoples can relate to Maya’s own struggles and see it in themselves, or in their people’s struggles. Some have even credited it with allowing black women writers to finally have center stage in the world of literature, instead of on the side where for far too long they’d been ignored and underappreciated.

President Obama said a few hours after the news came out of Dr. Angelou’s death that she reminded us “we all have something to offer”. Whether it be in words (written or oral), in action or just in being there for someone, we all have something to offer. Dr. Angelou offered many a voice, a way to speak about the struggles of the underappreciated and marginalized. Her words resonated with many throughout her lifetime, and I’m sure that they will continue to do so for years to come. And as the years go by, as Dr. Angelou’s works are read and dissected and discussed and debated by readers of all kinds and stripes, as movie adaptations and TV specials and new stories and poems recreate her for a new generation, and as the occasional politician or news commentator tries to appropriate her legacy for some political cause or another, I hope that one fact shines through it all, that she gave the world her voice, and allowed others to speak through it and with it.

And speaking of having something to offer, I decided on the spur of the moment to create a tribute video to Dr. Angelou. It’s not very good, and at the very most it showcases that I’m slowly getting more comfortable with video-making on computers (a valuable skill these days, it seems). But the song I put in, “Bye Bye” by Mariah Carey, is heartfelt and speaks to the emotions of many, and I think it shows my sincerity. What do you think?

You know. about five or six days ago, Dr. Angelou sent out this tweet:

I think this tweet says a lot about Dr. Angelou, because it seems that her words were definitely sent by somebody to make a difference in the world.

So to all those who were close to Dr. Angelou in life, I wish you my deepest condolences. To those who only knew her through her words, her reputation, or through her actions and influence in the world, you probably feel the same as I and many others do: like we’ve all lost someone important. And to the good Dr. Angelou herself, wherever you may be, I hope you’re doing well and that you know that your legacy will continue to influence and help us all for years to come. Thank you.

  1. She was an inspiration, wasn’t she? I was surprised and saddened to hear it happened. But she couldn’t have asked for a richer life, could she?

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