Many in the Asian American community paused to honor the legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou, an author, poet, educator and civil rights leader, who died Thursday. Many remarks describe Angelou as a source of strengh and perseverance with a kind, artistic soul.
Among the most influential voices of our time, hailed as a global renaissance woman, poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist, Angelous passed away Thursday at her home in Winston-Salem, NC. She was 86.
In a statement from Angelou’s family, Guy B. Johnson said Angelou passed quietly in her home sometime before 8 a.m. EST. 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,” Johnson said. “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.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, and Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou wrote about the brutality of racial discrimination, with a voice of unshakable faith and with the values of traditional African-American family, community and culture.
Karen Lyu, a jazz singer, holistic voice coach, and community nonprofit leader in Minneapolis for many years and now currently living in Korea, recalled that a brief meeting with Maya Angelou was a life-changing event.
Lyu was studying at Cornell College in Iowa, when she joined a group on a cold late February morning bus ride to see Angelou speak at Carlton College in Minnesota. The auditorium was full and the school quickly created an overflow room with a video feed for standing room only.
After waiting in line for over an hour to see Angelou in person after the reading, Lyu recalled her appearance was bigger than life, appearing like an elegant, black fairytale godmother, gently chiding the scarf-less and hat-less students with a knowing smile and a warm handclasp.
“Then she stopped, right in front of me,” Lyu said. “She looked into my eyes and seemed to see everything I’ve been through in that year — the most horrible year of my life to that point. “My right eye leaked a tear and then she gave me the most amazing life-changing hug and a kiss on my cheek that reminded me of my loving grandmother,” Lyu added. “Time can never erase that moment. I got a hug and a kiss from Maya Angelou! I don’t believe she stopped for anyone else that day. I was never the same.”
President Barack Obama, who presented Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, reflected on Angelou as “one of the brightest lights of our time – a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.”
“Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things – an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer,” Obama said. “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.”
Obama said he and First Lady Michelle Obama cherish the time they were privileged to spend with Angelou.
“With a kind word and a strong embrace, she had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer,” he added. “And while Maya’s day may be done, we take comfort in knowing that her song will continue, “flung up to heaven” – and we celebrate the dawn that Maya Angelou helped bring.”
Obama noted that when her friend Nelson Mandela passed away in 2013, Angelou wrote that “No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again, and bring the dawn.”
The Recording Academy issued a statement honoring three-time Grammy winner Angelou as a true Renaissance woman who literally did it all.
“Fearless and uninhibited, she was a trailblazer who broke color and gender barriers through her passionate and articulate prose and poetry, ultimately becoming ‘the people’s poet’,” said The Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow. “Her eloquence and honesty led to her well-earned success, and she fully appreciated the sound and music of language and the spoken word. This world citizen was and always will be a national treasure, and our culture is infinitely better because of her indelible contributions. Our deepest sympathies go out to her family, friends and all of us who have benefited from her infinite wisdom.”
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., issued a statement to remember Dr. Angelou an icon in the civil rights community, an inspiration to millions with a legacy of contributions to society, and widely acknowledged as a cultural spokeswoman for the African-American community.
“Dr. Maya Angelou was internationally renowned and respected as an award-winning poet, author, educator, historian and civil rights leader,” said Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine. “Working alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and serving early in her career as a coordinator with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, she was extremely active in the civil rights movement and continued to use her critical voice and literary works throughout her lifetime to address issues of racism and equality. The Lawyers’ Committee celebrates her eminent contributions to our nation.”
Born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, Dr. Angelou published seven autobiographies, the first of which was her widely acclaimed I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, describing her early life in the Jim Crow South. The book was one of the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman to reach a mainstream audience.
Over the span of her career, Dr. Angelou published three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a long list of plays, movies, and television shows, including a role in the popular 1977 television mini-series “Roots”. For the past 32 years, she taught at Wake Forest University where she held the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies.
She has received countless accolades and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination, Tony Award nomination, three Grammys, and over 50 honorary degrees.
Angelou served as an outstanding mentor and took great pride in mentorship and advisory roles during her illustrious career. She was adored by many world leaders, prominent figures and the general public. In 1993, she delivered her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”, at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton and was awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 2000.
In February 2011, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Her exemplary guidance can be seen in great leaders such as Oprah Winfrey.
“Her poetry became part of my cultural foundation,” Arnwine said. “Beautifully and powerfully crafted, Maya Angelou’s poems inspired me and so many others to rise and to seek new phenomenal heights.”