Many Americans met Maya Angelou for the first time at the inauguration of Bill Clinton. She read On the Pulse of the Morning, her poem for the occasion, about the rich and fertile diversity of the country, about getting past what discourages and disheartens to bring renewal.
If that moment inspired viewers to discover more about Ms. Angelou, what a treasure they found. Hers was an American story not unlike the one she evoked that day, full of color, hardship and pain, of overcoming and thriving.
The obituaries and remembrances since her death at age 86 last week offered reminders of her many roles, as a dancer, singer, actor and streetcar conductor, struggling young single mother, professor, poet and civil-rights leader. It was as a memoirist that she made her deepest impression. With I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, first published four decades ago, most readers were taken to an unfamiliar place. Yet it is part of this country’s fabric, a story about racism and violence, about broken homes and neglect. Still, there was dignity at its essence.
So much of her presence derived from her voice, deep, full, unforgettable. Yet what that voice reflected more than anything was the bravery in her heart. Maya Angelou didn’t just survive. She drew upon all that she experienced and flourished.