We were deeply saddened on May 28 when we learned of the death of Maya Angelou, the celebrated African-American author, poet, dancer, singer, memoirist and advocate for justice. She died at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., at the age of 86. Although she lived a long, full and remarkable life, we will continue to mourn the passing of this great woman.
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis in 1928. She became a poet and writer after holding a number of occupations. While still only a teenager, she became the first black and female cable car conductor in San Francisco. At various times as a young adult, she was a restaurant cook, a sex worker and a nightclub performer. She toured Europe as a cast member in Porgy and Bess and appeared in the 1957 musical film Calypso Heat Wave, contributing an original song to the soundtrack. That same year, she recorded an album for Liberty Records titled Calypso Lady. The following year, she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. She worked as a journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the 1960s. During those years she studied languages, became active in the civil rights movement, and met with a number of political leaders and activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Among her literary accomplishments is her renowned 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an account of her childhood and adolescence that brought her international acclaim. Victoria Brownworth, in a remembrance of Angelou published on the Lambda Literary Review website, recalls the impact the book made on her: “I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in college, in a Women’s Studies course when I was the same age she was when the memoir cuts off: 17. It had been published years earlier and was an international bestseller by then, and Angelou’s was a well-established voice. Nevertheless, with its open discussion of lesbianism and prostitution and depictions of explicit sexuality, it was a far cry from most of our other assignments. Angelou was not Austen.”
No, she definitely wasn’t. Angelou was a writer and thinker born in the tumultous 20th century, and she pushed the envelope. She once famously addressed an LGBT crowd in Florida in 1996, saying, ““I am gay. I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.”
Angelou was a longtime ally to the LGBT community, and in 2000, she spoke at an HRC dinner in Atlanta. Two years before same-sex marriage became legal in New York, she got on the phone in an effort to persuade three New York State Senators to support marriage equality. She told The New York Times, “To love someone takes a lot of courage…So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex, and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person’?”
On the day of President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, which was broadcast live around the world, Angelou read her poem On the Pulse of the Morning. She was only the second poet to compose and deliver a poem at a presidential Inauguration (Robert Frost was the first, at the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.) “I’ll never forget the first time I heard On the Pulse of Morning in 1993,” recalls HRC President Chad Griffin. “I was only 19 years old and still very much in the closet, but Maya Angelou’s greatest gift was the ability to reach each and every person with her wisdom, the beauty of her language, and her simple insistence upon a better and more just world.”
On June 7, a private memorial service for Angelou was held in a chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, where she had taught since 1982. She was slated to teach a course there on race, culture and gender in the fall. The service was broadcast live on TV and streamed online. Condolences and tributes were made by her family, friends, fellow artists, entertainers and world leaders, including former President Clinton and President Obama. First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey also made heartfelt speeches. Oprah said, through tears, “She was my spiritual queen mother.”
Clinton, who loved and admired Angelou, said that her writing struck a chord with him early in his life. “[Growing up in the South] I knew the people she was talking about, the problems she was documenting,” Clinton said. “She was paying attention. And absorbing the people she saw, the patterns of life, the experience, and trying to make sense of it. She had enough experiences for five lifetimes. We could all just show up here and talk about a piece of her life.” He also described how he had just seen Angelou two weeks before her death, when they both attended a commemorative event for the Civil Rights Act; in a moment of classic Clinton wit, he joked about the occasion being “a political Antiques Roadshow.”
Throughout her life, Angelou received dozens of awards and over 50 honorary doctoral degrees. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and numerous books of poetry. She also wrote plays, movies and TV shows. Her immense body of work spans more than six decades. As Chad Griffin sums up, “her books, essays, poems and speeches have long been—and will continue to be—a source of inspiration for LGBT people and for all people who seek a more open, more hopeful and more just world.”
You will be missed, Maya Angelou. We will miss your brilliance, compassion, grace, profound wisdom, gift for language, gentleness and beautiful smile. You inspired us.