By guest blogger Liana Heitin. Cross-posted from Curriculum Matters.
Maya Angelou, eminent poet and memoirist, died this morning at age 86.
Known for her melodic prose and confrontation of difficult issues—racism, sexism, rape—Angelou gained fame with her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. In the book, Angelou, born as Marguerite Johnson, describes a troubled childhood in poor, segregated Arkansas, during which she stopped speaking for a time. The book is widely read in U.S. schools, but also among the most frequently challenged works of the 21st century, according to the American Library Association.
Over the years, Angelou worked as a streetcar conductor, dancer, singer, actress, activist, and professor. She met and befriended other influential African-Americans including James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Oprah Winfrey.
In 1993, Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. She earned dozens of honorary doctorates and, in 2011, was presented with the White House Medal of Freedom for her dedication to civil rights. When Nelson Mandela died in December 2013, Angelou wrote a tribute poem for him, which the U.S. State Department distributed in 15 languages. “No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again and bring the dawn,” she wrote.
I had the good fortune of hearing Ms. Angelou speak just over a year ago to several thousand educators at a conference in Chicago. At the time she was quite frail and in a wheelchair, but her voice filled the room. “You are rainbows in the clouds,” she told the teachers, using a biblical reference she employed in many speeches. “It delights my heart to encourage you to continue.” She urged teachers to go forward with “some sass ... some flair, some passion, some compassion, some humor.”
One of my personal favorites of Angelou’s poems—and one that sums up how she herself exuded sass, flair, and passion—is Phenomenal Woman, which starts:
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
(Editor’s note: The New York Times’ Learning Network blog offers resources for teaching Maya Angelou.)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.