Dr. Maya Angelou wrote in her tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, “A Brave and Startling Truth,” that “We must confess that we are the possible…. We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world.” And Angelou was one of the wonders of the world. Her personal story was so rich, so varied, so remarkable in its diversity of experience that Walt Whitman must have imagined her when he spoke of the poet containing multitudes.
“To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has,” my colleague Gary Younge wrote several years ago of the woman who danced with Alvin Ailey, cut a fine calypso album, sang at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, performed in the touring company of Porgy and Bess, appeared in the television mini-series Roots, wrote songs with Roberta Flack, compared notes with James Baldwin, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry and global acclaim for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 book that was the first of a series of genre-expanding autobiographies. When President Obama presented her with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he noted that Angelou had “spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.”
Her artistic accomplishments alone would have been more than sufficient for a lifetime. But Angelou was, as well, an activist on behalf of the transformational causes of the eras in which she lived, from her birth in 1928 to her death Wednesday at age 86. She chronicled the anticolonial struggle in Africa (as the only woman editor of the Arab Observer newspaper); she knew Nelson Mandela before the South African freedom fighter began his long captivity; in Accra she was part of an expatriate community that included W.E.B. Du Bois; she joined Malcolm X in planning for an Organization of Afro-American Unity; she marched with Gloria Steinem; she inaugurated Bill Clinton; and she personally lobbied legislators on behalf of marriage equality—reminding them, “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’?”