Maya Angelou, one of the most influential African American writers and poets of modern times, passed away on May 28, 2014. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928, Angelou was an activist, poet, and memoirist who had a lasting impact on literature and culture both here in the United States and abroad.
Angelou’s significance to American culture and literature was recognized early in her career, culminating in 1993 when she became the first African American woman to write and recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. President Bill Clinton asked her to compose the poem for his first inauguration in January of that year.
In the years following her influential poem, Angelou wrote and published autobiographical works that included her personal history of living through the civil rights movement and the civil rights struggles of African-Americans.
Angelou worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke openly about her own personal struggles with rape and racism, and kept writing every day until her death in 2014.
Her writing and activism, which was rooted in an understanding of the complex history of oppression and racism in the United States, was important in the decades that followed. Angelou won multiple awards and honors during her career, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Throughout her life, Angelou contributed to the progress of the African American community and inspired generations of black women to take pride in their identities and speak up for their rights.
For her inspiring words, open discussion of difficult topics, and tireless work in the fight for civil rights, Maya Angelou’s legacy will continue to inspire people for generations to come.
Her Writing Style
Maya Angelou was known for her distinct writing style, which was characterized by an unwillingness for her words to conform to the conventions of English grammar. She said of her writing, “I break all the rules of punctuation, syntax, and of course, grammar,” and she did just that.
In Angelou’s writing, syllables split, phrases repeat, grammar is distorted, and subtext is woven throughout. This language style was in anticipation of the wave of spoken-word poetry and literature that would later become popular in the 1990s and 2000s, making her a pioneer in the art of storytelling. Her famous works earned her numerous accolades and a place in the nation’s literary canon.
Angelou wrote about her own experiences with morality, injustice, love, and racism, and even tackled them in her character dialogue. She was known for her strength in confronting discrimination, sexism, and prejudice in her writing, saying, “As a black woman I have known discrimination and I know how it feels… That is the American way. We use those feelings and find a way to grab the elephant.”
In addition to being a well-respected poet and memoirist, Angelou was also an accomplished performer, giving her work a unique edge over traditional written works. She was a powerful presence as she spoke—she could control a room with her words and compel audiences of any age and background to relate to her stories and thoughtfully consider their lessons.
Angelou wrote for publication using a powerful, dynamic voice in her work. Even in her later years when her vision had deteriorated, she was still able to bring her stories alive with a masterful prose that remains unmatched by contemporary writers.
Her Life and Legacy
Maya Angelou had a long and eventful life that began in the segregated South and stretched across the United States and around the world. She began writing in the 1950s, inspired by the civil rights movement, and continued to write until the last few years of her life.
During her life, Angelou made many contributions to her community. She was the first African American woman to write and recite a poem at a presidential inauguration, and she taught at several colleges, including San Francisco State University and Wake Forest University. She was a mentor to many, including Malcolm X and Oprah Winfrey.
Angelou was an international figure and an advocate for the rights of all people. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In her acceptance speech, she said of the award, “I know there is pain in life, and there are defeats. No one can avoid them. But it’s not about how you avoid them, but how you overcome them.”
At the time of her death, Angelou had published seven autobiographies and numerous other works of poetry, plays, screenplays, essays, and children’s books. She was, and still is, an inspirational figure to millions of people around the world.
Angelou’s life and work were celebrated after her death, and her legacy continues to inspire many people. From her timeless books to her moving lectures, Angelou is remembered for her courage and her willingness to confront difficult topics. Even after her death, she remains an important figure in the fight for civil rights and equality.
Her Impact on American Literature
Maya Angelou was one of the most influential American authors of the last half-century, with her work continuing to impact readers and writers long after her death. Angelou left a lasting impression on literature with her candid and lyrical writing, which challenged conventions and championed the African American struggle for equality in the United States.
One of the subjects Angelou wrote about was the complexity of race relations, and this was especially evident in her acclaimed memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This work dealt with the traumatic events Angelou experienced in her life, such as racism and sexual abuse, but also showed her resilience and determination to overcome them. This memoir established Angelou as a groundbreaking author, and it was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Angelou’s other works, such as Gather Together in My Name and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, further explored themes of African American identity, familial relationships, and the strength of personal narratives. She used her writing to bring visibility to the struggles and triumphs of African Americans in the United States, creating literature that resonated with readers across generations.
Angelou also wrote books of poetry in which she often used dialects to emphasize her point of view on life. Her poems, such as Phenomenal Woman, touched on the power and uniqueness of black female identity. This sense of pride for African American women has been cited as a major source of inspiration for subsequent generations of female artists.
Angelou was an important voice in literature and a pivotal figure in the history of African American literature. Her candid and lyric writing style earned her respect within the literary community and among readers everywhere.
A Prolific Public Speaker
In addition to her writing, Maya Angelou was a much sought-after public speaker. She was known for her rare combination of wit, wisdom, and storytelling ability. In her lectures, she would often expand upon the themes and ideas she had expressed in her books and show her audience the power of her words.
Angelou’s acclaimed public speaking appearances included engagements at Harvard University and Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial service. She also addressed many national and international audiences, including Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration in South Africa. Whenever she spoke, she captivated her audience with her insight and boundless optimism.
Angelou’s public appearances not only allowed her to share her stories and wisdom but also demonstrated the power of her specific perspective as an African American woman. She helped redefine what was acceptable in the public sphere and pushed many to think differently about their own experiences.
Angelou’s public speaking career was as equally influential as her written work. Her talks were filled with powerful themes and messages, and it was clear to her audiences that her words were more than just words—they were windows into the heart and soul of a person.
Angelou’s lectures were more than just emotionally moving. Through her words, she showed her audience the power of individuals to overcome adversity and also the strength of African-American communities in the face of challenge and adversity.
Her Later Years
In the later years of her life, Maya Angelou continued to write and speak. She gave lectures at many universities, wrote books about her own life, and wrote for various magazines.
In 2008, Angelou wrote the memoir A Song Flung Up to Heaven. This book, like her other works, focused on themes such as race, identity, and the human experience.
Angelou also worked as a professor during her later years, teaching theater, narrative writing, and African American literature at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
In her later years, Angelou also became passionate about young people, saying that they were “the life-blood of the future.” She worked with young adults to mentor them, help them with their recitation skills, and discuss her own life experiences.
Angelou’s later years were characterized by a sense of peace and contentment. Despite her failing vision, she was still writing and teaching right up to the end, even though she had difficulty seeing words on the page. Her later years were a testament to her spirit and unwavering dedication to her craft.