Dr. Maya Angelou lived her life like she wrote her poems: fearlessly, with inner grace and free spirit.
When she died on May 28, at the age of 86, humanity lost a poet, a novelist, an actress, a dancer, a singer, a mother, a civil rights activist, a three-time Grammy-winner — the list goes on.
But she was more than the sum of her parts. She was the voice of her generation and she will be heard by many more.
Born as Marguerite Annie Johnson 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, she was of African-American descent. At seven, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She told her brother, and a few days later her uncles killed the man.
When young Maya heard about the death she blamed her voice for killing the man, so she stopped speaking. She didn’t talk for six years.
In her teens, she won a scholarship to study dance and drama in San Francisco, at Labor School. Later, she dropped out to be a cable car conductor — the first African-American female to do so in San Francisco.
She gave birth when she was seventeen to a son, Guy Johnson. She didn’t have a partner, and she started waitressing.
She told Oprah Winfrey about how her mother`s love liberated her. She told the story of leaving her mother’s house with her baby when she was 17-years-old.
“‘You can always come home’, my mother told me,” Angelou said to Winfrey. “And I did, I went home every time life slammed me down. My mother never once acted as I-told-you-so.”
Finally, as her mother died, Angelou let her mother go, she freed her, as described in her last book, Mom and Me and Mom.
“Some people need permission to go,” said Angelou.
Her growing love for the written word took her to Egypt and Ghana, where she worked as a newspaper editor. In Ghana she met Malcolm X and helped him to build his Organization of African American Unity.
Shortly after her return to the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Angelou to serve as northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King was assassinated on her birthday in 1968, and it left her devastated.
She told Winfrey: “I feel carried by my ancestors.”
“I knew my crown has been paid for through my ancestors, who were born as slaves. Whenever I am on stage, my great grandmother stands beside me. I know, I have been paid for.”
Winfrey asked Angelou about the best advice she has ever given somebody. “There is a place in you that you must keep clean and inviolate. If somebody comes with rude language or is trying to hurt you, say no. Say no, if it’s no. And turn to that place, that’s the place where you can meet God.”