Maya Angelou: A Phenomenal Woman Passes On

The poet and civil rights activist has died at the age of 86.

Maya Angelou on Oct. 6, 2009
Maya Angelou on Oct. 6, 2009 Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for the Miami Project

Angelou met Malcolm X during his visit to Ghana and returned stateside in 1964 to help him set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated soon after her arrival, however, and the fledgling organization soon closed. Focusing on the civil rights movement, she became good friends with Martin Luther King Jr., who asked her to be northern coordinator for the SCLC. She was devastated by the loss of another friend when King was assassinated, on her birthday, in 1968.

Angelou found healing in writing. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970, followed her life through the birth of her son. While its tremendous success raised her literary profile, the book’s candid treatment of the traumas of racism and being raped as a child made it a controversial presence in school curricula and on library shelves.

She would go on to publish more than 30 works of verse, nonfiction and fiction, including the poetry collections Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie (1971), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; And Still I Rise (1978); and Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women (1995). Angelou also took on film and television. She wrote the Pulitzer Prize-nominated screenplay Georgia, Georgia in 1972 and penned the script for the TV drama Sister, Sister—starring Diahann Carroll, Rosalind Cash and Irene Cara—in 1982. In 1996 Angelou directed the feature film Down in the Delta.

A recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008, Angelou also received more than 30 honorary degrees. In 1993 President Bill Clinton asked her to compose a poem for his inauguration. Her reading of On the Pulse of Morning, broadcast internationally, was the first recital by a poet at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost read “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.