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Remembering Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou in Washington, DC last month.
Maya Angelou in Washington, DC last month.
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On Wednesday, the world lost a major voice in American literature. The writer, performer and activist Maya Angelou died Wednesday at her home in North Carolina. She was 86 years old. Jonathan Evans remembers her life and career.

Maya Angelou was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1928. She spent much of her childhood with her grandmother in tiny Stamps, Arkansas. For southern blacks, those years were a time of official racism and economic struggle.

Maya Angelou said what made life acceptable were the stories, songs and traditions passed down from one generation to the next. She once described how art worked a special kind of magic at her local black church:

"The church I belonged to was even smaller than any aspiration in the town. When all the members were there, we had 32 people in the whole church. And yet in that church I learned so much about the power of art to help human beings transcend almost anything."

Her writing career began after writer James Baldwin and other friends heard her childhood stories. They urged Angelou to write them down. She published "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in 1969. It was the first book of a series of six about her life. She also wrote essays, poetry, plays, and movie screenplays.

Her words moved students and presidents. She was invited to read a poem at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.

"Here on the pulse of this new day,
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes
And into your brother's face.
Your country and say simply, very simply, with hope
Good morning."

Nelson Mandela read Angelou's poem, “Still I Rise,” at his 1994 inauguration as president of South Africa. Here are its opening lines.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Although she never went to college, Angelou was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees. She also received a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Later this week, she was to be presented with an award from Major League Baseball for her civil rights work. She had to cancel her appearance at the ceremony for health reasons.

Maya Angelou taught for more than 30 years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. University President Nathan Hatch called her "a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world." He said “we will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights.”

Media star Oprah Winfrey was a very close friend of Maya Angelou. Winfrey said Angelou “will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”