(Originally printed in the June 1, 2014, edition of The Graham Leader)
Today, we join the rest of the world in simultaneously celebrating the life of and mourning the loss of American author and human rights activist Maya Angelou. She died at her home in North Carolina on Wednesday at the age of 86.
Born Marguerite Johnson, she endured many hardships and traumas as a young child, overcoming them all to become a world-renowned poet, writer, actor and speaker. When she was 7, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After she told her brother about the attack, the man was arrested and convicted but was released from jail after only one day. He was later found beaten to death. The young girl blamed herself for his death, specifically she thought that she had caused his death by speaking about what he had done to her. Consequently, she decided to stop speaking, lest she cause another death.
For five and a half years, the young Angelou didn’t speak to anyone but her brother. Finally, a teacher and family friend helped her find her voice again.
Following high school graduation and the birth of her son, Angelou pursued several occupations. It was her venture into a singing and dancing career that led her to adopt the name of Maya Angelou, a combination of a childhood nickname and a shortened version of her first husband’s last name.
In 1969, Angelou wrote the first of her seven memoirs, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which detailed her life up until age 17, including the rape. The book was both successful and controversial for its openness about what she had experienced.
Through the years, Angelou also took up the cause of human rights. In a statement released via Facebook, her family described her as someone who “…lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.”
With only a high school education and a difficult beginning to life, Angelou worked diligently and rose above the hardships to become an inspiration for many the world over. Although she was appreciated as a kind person, Angelou held those around her to high standards and was known for quotations such as: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” And, “Nothing will work unless you do.”
As she left behind the mountains of experiences that could have been used as excuses for a life lived less graciously, who in the world could argue with her when she demanded that others, too, push forward to greatness?
Fortunately, the tools of modern society have recorded Angelou’s words and her memorable voice. One of her most well-known speeches was at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Only the second poet to be included in an official U.S. presidential swearing-in ceremony, Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning.”
Despite failing health, Angelou recorded a video statement less than a week before her death, and it was scheduled to be presented Friday at the Major League Baseball Civil Rights Luncheon in Houston. With words that can be taken to heart in communities across the globe, Angelou left us with these words:
“It has been said often that there are none so blind as those who will not see. There are people who go through life burdened by ignorance because they refuse to see. When they do not recognize the truth that they belong to their community and their community belongs to them … it is because they refuse to see.”