Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday at the age of 86, was known for many things throughout her life: her wisdom, her acting, her indefatigable civil rights activism. But more than anything else, Angelou was famous for her writing. Both a prolific poet and memorist, Angelou penned more than two dozens books and collections throughout her life (including two cookbooks).
Despite the scale of her oeuvre, much of her work deals with reoccuring themes: love, heartbreak, family, race and feminism. Her books were critically-acclaimed and adored by many readers; here are some of the most notable works.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
The first of seven autobiographical works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s most famous and critically acclaimed book. The story spans much of her childhood, following young Maya and her older brother as they bounce from their parents’ home to their grandmother’s…
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After remembering the solemness of the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, I also remember another culturally-relevant event in America and the world – the birthday of the “Global Renaissance Woman” herself, Dr. Maya Angelou. And with the latest news I just got from Tom Joyner minutes ago, my heart is heavy this morning over the great loss of this amazing educator, poet, orator, mother, daughter, and human being.
My first experience with her works and persona was in school where I had to recite a poem in front of the class. Naturally, I was mortified of public speaking, especially to my peers who would only make fun of me later at lunch if my nerves got the better of me. I found her poem “Phenomenal Woman” after I saw the John Singleton’s Poetic Justice starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur.
Miss Jackson’s oration of these magical poems hooked me in as a teenager, especially in contrast to the chaotic world of Compton, CA that her character Justice had to endure. The poetry was her refuge, providing an outlet for her dreams, frustrations, grief, isolation and yearnings for love.
So as I practiced at home, I remember feeling nervous about saying the word “breasts” in front of my class. It felt a little risque but I knew I needed to remain authentic to the original work.
But something strange happened to me when I was my turn to present my poem. My fear evaporated and I became her character, a strong and self-assured woman who was proud of my internal and external qualities that made me unique. Sorry, readers. I don’t have video of this transformation but rest assured, I never forgot how that one oration connected me to Dr. Maya Angelou ever since.
What I learned over the years as I grew into my own person was that I wasn’t playing a character that day – I caught a glimpse of who I really was (and am at my “best self”). Thank you, Dr. Angelou and Lady O for giving women like me the vocabulary to recognize this kind of “Aha Moment.” I am the educator I am now because of that poem. I am the assured young woman because Dr. Angelou’s body of work that celebrates self-love and acceptance. You will live on my heart and deeds! XOXO