Poet, author, actress, civil rights activist and professor Dr. Maya Angelou, whose works resonated with themes of unity, liberation and moving forward, has walked on at age 86.
The writer of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is perhaps best known, as The New York Times pointed out, for her reading of the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, “who, like Ms. Angelou, had grown up poor in rural Arkansas.”
Condolences and remembrances poured in throughout the day, and Wake Forest University, where Angelou taught, set up a website and guestbook.
“Maya Angelou has been a towering figure—at Wake Forest and in American culture,” Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch said in a statement. “She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation. “We will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights.”
From the White House to the New York State governor’s office, the 2011 Medal of Freedom winner was lauded and mourned. President Barack Obama called her “one of the brightest lights of our time—a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman,” in a statement.
“Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things—an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer,” Obama said in a statement from the White House. “But above all, she was a storyteller—and her greatest stories were true. A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking—but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves. In fact, she inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”
Angelou stopped speaking for five years after a man convicted of raping her when she was aged 7 or 8 was murdered before he could start serving his sentence, probably at the hands of her uncles. This “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South,” as The New York Times called her, knew much about overcoming oppression, and wrote eloquently about the folly of humanity’s inhumanity to itself. Among those she paid homage to were American Indians.
As the poem reads:
Each of you, descendant of some passed-
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers — desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours — your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings recounted her first 17 years as she grew up poor in rural Arkansas. She went on to become a calypso dancer and Tony-nominated actress, among many other pursuits. And of course she authored more than 30 books.
Below, watch Angelou deliver the stirring words, a call to peaceful action if you will, at the inauguration courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.