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And still she rises: reflections on Dr. Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 - May 28, 2014) passed earlier today.  Even her physical health did not prevent her from being the thinker and activist needed to challenge others and make people and their surroundings a better place.
Taken by Andrew Snorton

Today, May 28th, between the hours of 8 and 9am EST, some of us wondered why we have to rise out of bed today; perhaps it was the threat of having to navigate through traffic, or the fact we wish the recent holiday weekend did not conclude as soon as it did. However, when we finally come to our senses, we realize it indeed is a blessing to rise, as it provides us with the opportunity to be a blessing to our families, friends, loved ones, co-workers, associates, strangers, and all who we may come across today.

Dr. Maya Angelou embodies that sense of stewardship, encouragement, and empowerment. While she did not rise as many of us did today, her life story is an embodiment of what one can rise from and rise through, along with the potential to impact people locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Born on April 4, 1928 (ironically, the same numerical date that one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated) in St Louis and raised in Stamps (Arkansas), her story of "rising" is fairly well documented. At the age of 7, she is sexually assaulted by a family associate, and for an extended period of time, existed in a mute-like state given her uncles' response (by killing the family associate, a boyfriend her mother). However, she would have a gradual rise from this traumatic experience, and rise into a level of consciousness rarely seen or heard of.

Ranging from becoming a mother at the age of 16, to her work in the arts and the stage in the mid 1950's, her time in Egypt and Ghana as a freelance writer, and other interests, including the Civil Rights Movement in which she worked with both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Angelou's command and sphere of influence grows exponentially and across multiple arenas. Her 1969 undertaking and 1970 release at the encouragement of friend and author James Baldwin truly puts her in a position of being an influential author, artist, and activist with the autobiographical masterpiece, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings".

That in and of itself would be a great way to conclude her story, but there's more to it. And thankfully, we are all the better for it.

Tony and Emmy Award nominations (notably her role in the landmark mini-series "Roots"), multiple works in film, television, and the arts, over 60 books and other works only scratch the surface of her impact. The accolades ranging from being named Poet Laureate and reading her piece crafted for President Bill Clinton's Inauguration "On The Pulse of Morning", earning her honorary doctorate (in 1977) from Wake Forest University and later being named the university's first ever Reynolds Professor of American Studies in 1982 (which is a lifetime position until retirement) to her wide-reaching influence of key figures ranging to the aforementioned President Clinton, leading scholar Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, Oprah Winfrey, and countless others across disciplines and other fields, perhaps her most long-lasting legacy is her innate ability in a blend of being sincere, serious, challenging, empowering, and just enough of a dose of humor, to make people feel, understand, and know what they are truly capable of.

A key quote shared on the university's site from her 1985 Commencement speech (at Wake Forest) reads as follows: "Your destiny is to develop the courage to flesh out the great dreams, to dare to love, to dare to care, to dare to want to be significant and to admit it, not by the things you own or the positions you hold, but by the lives you live". Her call and challenge to be good stewards and to help make things better and making people better is the resounding underlying premise behind all of her work.

Ask some of the aforementioned "known" figures mentioned, or the many alumni who are able to experience her presence first-hand from taking one of her classes, or just having casual conversation with her, along with her colleagues near and far of the impact she has on them as professionals, being more engaged in community and civic affairs, and other areas of need. Ask those who have read her work and are influenced by it. As University president Dr. Nathan Hatch notes from the university's page, “Maya Angelou has been a towering figure — at Wake Forest and in American culture. She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation. We will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights.”

Dr. Harris-Perry shares on the university page, “The lessons she has to teach reach far beyond the classroom into our very lives. One of the key lessons was courage. I’ve said it myself over and over.”

There are sure to be countless pieces that can capture those private and personal moments, doses of her humor, conviction, and other anecdotes that provide additional images and understanding, but in the end, if nothing else, her spirit of overcoming impediments that would ground others is something that I come away with. In the course of her journey, her persistence and perseverance provides a means by which others can do the same; to a degree, it matters not from whence you came, but where you are able to go and who are you are to bring up and help "wise up and rise up" that truly provides insight as to who you are and to whose you are.

On levels that ascend beyond the physical, Dr. Maya Angelou still rises. Through her life's work as a writer, poet, musician, actress, teacher, mentor, and storyteller, her presence still remains. The multiple institutes and entities named in her honor to help address the community and social issues, including the Wake Forest University School of Medicine's Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity (with a focus on studying racial and ethnic disparities in health care, along with health outcomes), is just one of a number of examples of how people are acting with a measure of consciousness and doing something positive for the greater good. Through our individual and collective efforts to do and to be better, it isn't just through her words and actions in which we hear and visualize rising; we can do so too with the courage needed to make it happen.

And still, she rises.

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