Maya Angelou, through her life story and her words, transcended worlds. She shared her poetry with presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama). She befriended some of the major transformative figures of her time (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela). She even navigated the realm of entertainment (appearing in “Roots,” chatting with Oprah Winfrey, singing with Elmo on “Sesame Street”).
The Renaissance woman who told us “in diversity there is beauty and there is strength” connected with a wide spectrum of humanity that belied and overcame the fractured America she was born into 86 years ago. For all her achievements and all the lives she touched, famous and otherwise, Angelou left the world stage Wednesday, more than anything, as a poet of the people.
With the 1969 publication of her acclaimed memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou's fame stretched far beyond the literary set. Her clear-eyed account of struggle and perseverance resonated with millions of readers, whether or not they’d faced anything approaching the hardships of her childhood in the Jim Crow South. Angelou emerged wiser from her youth, but not without scars.
"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again," she once said.
Angelou struck similar themes in her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning,” which she delivered in 1993 at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, who, like her, had been raised poor in Arkansas. Her deep voice, measured and majestic, along with her powerful words (“I call you to my riverside, if you will study war no more”), transfixed much of the nation.
The inauguration spotlight solidified Angelou’s status as a pop culture figure, built in part on the one-time dancer’s frequent TV appearances. Another sign of Angelou’s unique brand of celebrity came in parodies on “Saturday Night Live” – including one in which David Alan Grier memorably portrayed her as a rhapsodizing spokeswoman for Butterfinger candy bars (“Oh, you finger of butter, you proud confection”).
Perhaps Angelou's final iconic moment came in 2011 when President Obama gently kissed the regal, yet frail writer after bestowing upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
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Angelou served her country by creating, in her poetry, memoirs and speeches, a resounding voice of inspiration amid echoes of past wrongs and rumbles of looming dangers. Still, like the caged bird, Maya Angelou sang out in hopes of a better tomorrow. As she wrote in “On the Pulse of the Morning”:
This day breaking for you
Give birth again
To the dream
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.