Yesterday, American writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. Countless newspapers, celebrities and politicians have been paying tributes to the poet since, with Barack Obama calling her “one of the brightest lights of our time”. Evidently, Angelou is already greatly missed and had a huge impact on so many people. Through her writing, activism and amazing personal strength, she will never be forgotten.
Angelou often said that writing was an important release for her, and literature helped her cope with the sexual abuse she endured as a child. She wrote hundreds of poems as well as seven autobiographies in her lifetime, the most famous of which being I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a book which is often cited as the reason for the increase in black feminist writing in the 1970s. Her autobiographies chronicle her entire life, with the most recent one, Mom & Me & Mom, published as recently as 2013. Angelou is praised for her ability to write frankly and honestly about the most personal details of her life, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is famous for its explicit depictions of racial injustice. Angelou is also known for her poetry, and has been described as “the black woman’s poet laureate.” One of her most famous poems is ‘Still I Rise’, which summarises her attitude towards racism, sexism and her tragic childhood in the line: “Up from a past that’s rooted in pain, I rise.”
Even though she only died a day ago, the internet has already been flooded with lists of Angelou’s most inspirational quotes. She obviously had a way with words, and she said so many intelligent, memorable, profound things which will undoubtedly be repeated for years. Angelou’s quotes apply specifically to her situation, for example “the fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence”, and also are generally applicable to absolutely anyone’s life: “never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” Her quotes are wise, easy to relate to and witty, and it’s no wonder they are used so often.
Sense of humour
One of Angelou’s most brilliant lines is “My life has been one great big joke, a dance that’s walked, a song that’s spoke. I laugh so hard I almost choke when I think about myself”, and she once famously said “I don’t trust anybody who doesn’t laugh.” Despite growing up in a racially segregated America, being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and being so traumatised by the incident that she physically lost her voice for five years, Angelou never lost her optimism, sense of humour or ability to laugh at herself. The hardships she endured have meant that she is not often remembered as a funny woman, but Angelou used humour as a coping mechanism, and her writing will always remind readers to try to see the funny side no matter what.
During the civil rights movements, Angelou was close with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and she helped the latter form the Organization of Afro-American Unity. She was also the SCLC’s Northern coordinator and helped organise the Cabaret for Freedom to raise funds for the organisation. Angelou’s activism didn’t end when America was desegregated- she continued to push for equality even after the Civil Rights Act. She campaigned for Obama during the 2008 election, and in 2010 she donated memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Through her writing and her actions, she has inspired millions of people to keep trying to end racism, and her impact means that she will continue to do so even after her death.