Gilmore: Maya Angelou spoke for everyone

Maya Angelou attends the memorial celebration for folk

Maya Angelou attends the memorial celebration for folk icon Odetta at Riverside Church in Manhattan on Feb. 24, 2009. (Credit: Getty Images / Astrid Stawiarz)

Maya Angelou represented the quintessential African-American voice in American art, though she spoke for all: women, men, children, the world.

The writer, poet, dancer, songwriter, performer and ambassador of goodwill, who died Thursday, was an artistic giant. She rose out of adversity.

At the age of 8, she was sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend. The event caused Angelou to go mute for five years but ultimately set her on an unlikely path that would lead to an extraordinary artistic career. Literature and art saved Angelou, as she regained her ability to talk and converse by reading the classics at the behest of a schoolteacher.


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By the 1950s, she was a dancer in San Francisco and also began performing on stage around the world in major productions, such as "Porgy and Bess." Angelou also wrote and performed songs on stage. In the early 1960s, her group traveled the country, singing blues and folk songs to packed clubs.

In the early 1960s, Angelou turned to writing literature. She joined the Harlem Writers' Guild with Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall and other black writers who were expressing a new sense of black pride and consciousness. She also met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and immersed herself in the nation's movement for racial equality.

A few years later, Angelou moved to Africa and began writing for publications there. And she met Malcolm X on one of his visits to Africa.

In 1970, the first of her many great books arrived: "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." This memoir of her early years won instant acclaim, and is still widely read today. "Caged Bird" was followed by "Gather Together in My Name," another memoir detailing how she, as a black woman in America, was treated as less than equal.

The books, poetry and other literature continued in the decades that followed, and she became an indestructible voice on the American literary scene. Her 1971 collection, "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie," was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In January 1993, she read a poem at the invitation of President Bill Clinton at his first inauguration. The poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," booms universal themes about American society and its changing racial and cultural landscape. "Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness," she wrote, striking a powerful note of reconciliation and hope.

In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom to go with many other awards she received over her lifetime.

Maya Angelou was a human being of extraordinary energy and beauty whose life tells our story as a nation. We are better that she was part of our lives because her life was one of hope and love of humanity.

Brian Gilmore is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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