I was listening to a local radio news program when I heard the anchor say that Dr. Maya Angelou had passed. To make sure the report was accurate, I called a friend, who knows her through a close friendship with Angelou's grandson. She confirmed what I was hoping was not true. The world had lost an icon in the passing of Angelou at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was 86 years old.
Through her autobiographies, poems, essays, lectures and work in front of and behind the camera, as well as on stage, Angelou touched generations — my mom's, mine, my nieces' and nephews' generation and their children's.
Her poignant writings about her own pains, challenges and triumphs; and issues involving civil rights, poverty and racial and social injustices, were brutally honest and on point. But they were done with a finesse that pulled the reader or listener in and left them, if not with a sense of hope for the future, with at least something to think about.
I was introduced to Angelou's writings when I was in elementary school and read one of her most well-known books, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." I reread it as an adult because I was too young to fully understand this autobiographical work about Angelou's early years, which included being raped by her mother's boyfriend before she was a teenager. After the man was killed by those outraged by the crime, Angelou didn't speak for about six years to anyone but her younger brother, thinking her words in identifying him were the cause of the man's death. She said a love of poetry and wanting to recite it helped her through that period.
Through subsequent writings, and speeches delivered in that easily recognizable and commanding and eloquent voice, Angelou has given others hope that they can move past negative experiences.
She once said in a lecture that things that happen to her can change her, but "I refuse to be reduced by it." I've pulled on that one many times when challenges had me wanting to pull the covers over my head and not face the world.
Angelou's writings have inspired people of all races, ages and economic groups. People who rarely or never pick up a book of poetry, can recite verses from her poetry. Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman," and the one she wrote and recited for President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, "On the Pulse of Morning," have motivated many people.
Just before I traveled to Ghana earlier this year, I reread her book, "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes." It has always spoken to me because I love to travel, love meeting people and learning about their cultures. In this autobiography, Angelou writes about the years she lived in Ghana, where she did administrative work at a university in Accra, was a freelance journalist and also performed with Ghana's National Theatre. To read of her adventures in Ghana was energizing and added to the excitement I felt about my own trip. When I got to Ghana and spent two weeks traveling around the country, I imagined Angelou holding court in places I visited, or at her house with major African-American activists and intellectuals, such as Malcolm X, on their visits to Accra. I also had a hint of what she wrote in the book about feeling like an outsider at times in Ghana and not being fully embraced as a diasporan coming home to the Motherland.
To be sure, I was embraced by the beautiful Ghanaians I met, but at the same time, I was taken aback when I was called "obruni" – which means "foreigner" – by Ghanaians, along with the white Americans in my group. I mistakenly thought that name was reserved for whites from outside of Africa and not used for African Americans. Angelou's writing helped me to not feel too offended but to move on and enjoy the trip.
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Over the years, I heard Angelou speak numerous times and was fortunate to meet her one-on-one. She was always gracious, and you couldn't help but be mesmerized by her deep, melodious voice. I wasn't the only one in those settings who hung on to her every word for any pearls of wisdom. We're so fortunate that she chose to share her stories of growing up during segregation, being raped, having a child as a teenager and experiencing financial hardships as she carved out a career as an actress and dancer — stories that have moved and encouraged many during their own trials to echo a standard from a popular Angelou poem: "Still I rise."