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Maya Angelou and three life-changing words

Celebrated poet, biographer, teacher, and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, was found dead Wednesday, May 28, 2014 in her home Winston-Salem, NC. She was 86. Described as a national treasure, a true Renaissance woman, the embodiment of the “Phenomenal Woman” revealed in her lilting poetic style, the legendary Angelou published several books of poetry along with seven autobiographies and three collections of essays. The versatile actress-dancer-producer has also written plays, film scripts and television shows in careers that spanned five decades.

Maya Angelou reciting her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.
Maya Angelou reciting her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.

In addition to being Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, Angelou was recipient of dozens of awards, including a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album, the Women in Film Crystal Award, numerous awards for her poetry as well as nonfiction, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Other honors include more than thirty honorary doctoral degrees.

Known for her vibrant personality and zest for life, Angelou spoke of three words that impacted her life in a powerful way. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, who spoke of the renowned poet as one of the greatest influences in her life, Angelou described an unforgettable encounter with vocal coach, Frederick Wilkerson. As her mentor and friend, Wilkerson challenged the young writer to read and comprehend to the greatest degree three words: “God loves me.” Those three words forever changed her life, as the accompanying video reveals.

God and His love continued to be an important part of her life. Five days prior to her death, she dispatched her final tweet @DrMayaAngelou: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.” Her statement brings to mind the Old Testament passage where God commanded Elijah to stand upon the mountain where the Lord passed by, preceded by a strong wind that leveled the mountain, followed by an earthquake, but the Lord was not in any of those fierce elements, and finally a fire, and after the fire “a still small voice.” The celebrated poet leaves behind this reminder that God continues to speak in a still small voice to those who listen. shared part of a statement released by Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson: "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.” His reference to his mother’s passing as “her ascension” brings to mind one of Angelou’s signature poems, an appropriate closing tribute:

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.

Take a look at the accompanying slide show of a few highlights from the life of Dr. Maya Angelou.

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