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Remembering Maya Angelou, Woman of Many Dimensions

May 29, 2014

Maya Angelou in Hollywood, 1971. (Photo: WF/Corbis)

Yesterday, inimitable writer Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. Just last week, our CEO wrote about her affinity for Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” That might seem like a coincidence, but given how profoundly Angelou’s voice resonates through our culture, it’s really no coincidence at all. So great is her reach as a thinker and writer that not a moment goes by when she’s not being referenced, quoted, or now, remembered.

With Bill Clinton after winning the National Medal Of Arts, Washington, D.C., in 2000. (Photo: Stephen Jaffe / Getty Images)

Most of us know Angelou as an author and poet, but if anything has emerged from all the tributes published in the past day, it’s that Angelou was a woman of endless dimension. Mashable published a list of the jobs she held in her life, which included San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor, fry cook, Calypso singer and dancer, prostitute, screenwriter, composer, journalist, activist, professor, and poet, to name just a few.

Dressed for the Caribbean Calypso Festival, in 1957. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Through her courageous work as a writer and activist, Angelou challenged and shaped the nation’s thinking about race and gender. She counted figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Oprah among her friends and collaborators.

With Gloria Steinem on their way to the March on Washington, in 1983. (Photo: James M Thresher / Getty Images). 

Her words echo through our culture, which is all the more amazing given that, after being sexually abused as a child, she didn’t speak for a full five years. But once Angelou regained her voice, there was no silencing her. Her incredible body of work—from her influential autobiographies to her always-profound tweets—will serve as a record and a guide for generations to come.

Dancing on the 89th birthday of Langston Hughes, New York, in 1991. (Photo: Chester Higgins)

In addition to her powerful words, she leaves behind a legacy of resilience. Her stirring poem, “Still I Rise,” seems more resonant than ever. For every day of her 86 years, Angelou continued to work, to try, to persist, to understand, to overcome, to forgive, to inform, to nurture, to inspire, and quite simply, to rise.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you? 
Why are you beset with gloom? 
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken? 
Bowed head and lowered eyes? 
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you? 
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you? 
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? 

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. 

– Maya Angelou

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