On Wednesday, one of America’s leading civil rights activists, Maya Angelou, passed away at age 86.
Angelou, famous for her poems, activism and memoirs, died in her home after suffering heart problems, according to her agent.
Angelou’s famous memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, talked about her childhood – from being abandoned by her parents, raped by her mother’s boyfriend, becoming homeless, a teen mother, and witnessing the Jim Crow South – all before the age of 16. It debuted in 1969 and is still a bestseller.
“She told a story that wasn’t allowed to be told,” author Tayari Jones posted on Facebook. “Now, people tell all sorts of things in a memoir, but when she told the truth, she challenged a taboo – not for shock value, but to heal us all.”
Angelou not only worked toward race equality, but LGBT equality as well.
In 2009, Angelou called up Democratic State Senator Shirley L. Huntley.
“I would ask every man and every woman who’s had the blessing of having children, ‘Would you deny your son or your daughter the ecstasy of finding someone to love?’ To love someone takes a lot of courage,” she said. “So how much more is one challenged when the love of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person?’”
In 1993, Angelou was selected to read a poem at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address, the first poet selected since Robert Frost read for JFK in 1961. She was also the first African-American and woman to read.
An excerpt reads:
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree
“Our country needs us all right now to stand up and be counted,” Angelou said during an interview in 2009. “We are necessary in this country and we need to give something…Look where we’ve all come from…coming out of darkness but moving toward the light. It’s a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.”