It is hard to pinpoint the work Maya Angelou should be most recognised for; as an author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, and poet, her artistic accomplishments would have been more than sufficient for a lifetime. It is the role Angelou adopted as a civil rights activist and her remarkable personal story that distinguish her from others.
In 1970 Maya Angelou’s memoir 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' made literary history as the first nonfiction best seller by an African American; her friend and colleague James Baldwin convinced her to chronicle her childhood and young adult years where she battled racism with dogged persistence.
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After her parents split up, Angelou grew up with her father’s mother, Anne Henderson, in Stamp, Arkansas. Angelou’s novel not only conveys the difficulties associated with racial prejudice, it also honestly depicts Angelou’s sexuality and experience of being raped as a child by one of her mother’s boyfriends. The attack traumatized Angelou so much that she stopped talking and returned to Arkansas to spend years as a virtual mute.
'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' conveys how love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. The memoir was nominated for the National Book Award and is now frequently read alongside fictional works that also delve into the subject of racism, such as Harper Lee’s 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and Ralph Ellison’s 'Invisible Man'.
'On the Pulse of the Morning' is another of Angelou’s more celebrated works. Written for and recited at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Angelou went on to win a Grammy for best spoken-word album after the poem was released on audio.
Angelou has also lobbied legislators on behalf of marriage equality and after hearing a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. she quickly became inspired to take on the role of director of Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Martin Luther King Jr. eventually became a close friend, and when he was assassinated on her birthday in 1968 she abandoned any idea of celebration completely and sent flowers to his widow Cornetta Scott King for more than thirty years until Coretta’s death in 2006.
The author received honours throughout her career, including two medals from NAACP for outstanding literary work in 1997 and significant achievement by an African American in 1994, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2010, the highest American civilian honour.
After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya Angelou, the "warrior for equality, tolerance and peace," passed away on May 28, 2014 at her home in North Carolina, leaving behind an impressive body of work and an unforgettable conviction for positive change.