Maya Angelou was born on April 4th, 1928 and remains one of the most significant literary and cultural figures of all time.
As well as a poet and writer, she was a hugely inspirational activist for Civil Rights, a campaigner for equality wherever communities found themselves facing adversity.
What may be slightly less well-known is how she placed herself not just in the context of the civil rights struggle but alongside other groups she identified as being part of the struggle and being a vocal and long-term supporter of LGBT marriage equality.
At President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in ’93 she read from her poem ‘On The Pulse Of Morning’, which includes the lines: ‘The Gay/The Straight/The Preacher’. It may well be the first time the word ‘gay’ had been used at a presidential inauguration in its modern sense.
Addressing an LGBT crowd in ’96 in Florida, she said: ‘I am gay. I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.’
Angelou had a difficult childhood: she was sent to live in segregated Arkansas by her parents who opted to remain in California. When taken back in, she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s lover. Forever told to be seen but not heard, she became mute for five years, as a result of the assault, before her teacher introduced her to poetry, emphasised the importance of spoken word and helped Angelou discover her love of writing.
She proved gifted at school and received a scholarship in drama at California Labor School before graduating, marrying and giving birth to a son, Guy.
It was after joining the Harlem Writers’ Guild and meeting Dr Martin Luther King that she became inspired to use her creative platform to advocate Civil Rights. She wrote her first autobiography ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, which was nominated for a National Book Award. She produced further work including more poetry and children’s books before publishing a collection of essays.
In 2009 she lobbied three New York senators for gay marriage equality, saying at the time: ‘To love someone takes a lot of courage. So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and he laws say “I forbid you from loving this person.”’
Angelou committed her life to speaking out for justice and in 2010, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Why is Maya Angelou remembered? Because she was strong and brave – she stopped at nothing to achieve change for the better and allied herself with those who she felt shared experience of discrimination.
We remember all that she did today – on her birthday, and on others. Thank you, Maya.
Angelou’s poem ‘Equality’ captures her strength, her fears and her determination: