In this verse from what is arguably her most beloved poem, “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou dares to delight in the black female body, a body that has borne the brunt of history’s brutality and degradation. This celebration was counter-cultural, disruptive, revolutionary. It was this and countless other achievements that made her a writer-warrior for black women.
Now that the author and poet has died at age 86 in her North Carolina home, we’re left with the enduring gift of her words and wisdom. In a statement her family released today, they wrote:
Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.
Coming from humble beginnings in the Jim Crow South, Angelou’s storied rise to cultural ubiquity led her to declare “I have created myself,” in 2007. Standing tall physically (six feet) as well as spiritually, Angelou was a singer and dancer (and streetcar conductor!), and ultimately a literary giant.
She wrote more than 30 books, and her unforgettable 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has never been out of print. Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama as well as the National Medal of Arts by Bill Clinton and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She even won three Grammys, for her spoken-word albums. On top of her prolific writing, she was a civil rights activist, having organized with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Writing of her death, President Obama said:
Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things … But above all, she was a storyteller—and her greatest stories were true. A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking—but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves. In fact, she inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.
In her final tweet, posted five days ago, the cultural treasure offered a fitting epitaph for her life’s story:
Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.
— Maya Angelou (@DrMayaAngelou) May 23, 2014
Anita Little is associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.