A Legacy of Leadership: Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Honoring a ground-breaking voice that made the world better.

A Legacy of Leadership: Maya Angelou, 1928-2014
Maya Angelou in the dressing room at Symphony Hall before a performance. (Feb 8., 2004) [Photo by Dominic Chavez, The Boston Globe, Getty Images)]

Activist, poet, and author Maya Angelou died today at the age of 86. She was a “warrior for equality, tolerance and peace,” her family said in a statement this morning.

Born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in Saint Louis, Missouri, Angelou emerged from a difficult childhood of sexual abuse. Angelou took her new name as a nightclub singer, touring in dance and theater–including opera, off-broadway productions, and the Alvin Ailey dance company–eventually moving to New York and joining the Harlem Writers’ Guild.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

In the late 1950s, Angelou became involved in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

She published her first autobiographical novel, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, in 1970. This would be the first of seven autobiographies; Angelou was among the first black women to reach this kind of literary success–speaking publicly about her personal life, and casting herself as heroine in her own story. Her writings continue to inspire the same confidence, seasoned with humility and true experience, in readers today.

Pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.

Angelou went on to receive over 30 honorary doctorate degrees and was a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University since 1982. She was set to appear this week at the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon as honoree, but canceled on Monday citing illness.

Angelou embraced chances to connect with her admirers, including posting regularly to Twitter and Facebook with updates on her daily life and snippets of poetry, like this one from “Our Grandmothers.”

At the 1993 Presidential Inauguration, Angelou recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” as the first African-American woman and second poet to present at an inauguration.

Among her most famous poems is “Still I Rise,” from which this stanza is taken:

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

About the author

Former Tweets, words, and editorial support for Fast Company Leadership. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.



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