As soon as I heard that Maya Angelou passed away, a vibrant memory swooped in. It’s 2007 and I’m in a red-gold theatre suffused with warmth and laughter. Maya Angelou is speaking live at The Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I am a homesick Australian exchange student living far from home, drinking in her every vibrant, hilarious and passionate word like it’s an elixir of strength. And perhaps it was; Angelou’s joie de vivre that evening showed me what it looked like to be what I was aspiring to be—a confident and sparkling woman.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
Since news of her death at age 86 hit social media, you’ve likely noticed that there’s a Maya Angelou quote to strengthen any and every heart. Her vibrant and packed-to-bursting life as a poet, author, dancer, performer, educator, public speaker, civil rights activist and mother led her to write seven autobiographies, three books of essays and many collections of poetry, as well as directing and acting in theatre, film and television.
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Angelou was awarded The U.S. National Medal of Arts and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as myriad other honorary degrees and accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination. She gave courage to countless survivors of abuse by speaking out about her experiences as a childhood victim of rape, but it was Angelou’s indefatigable celebration of the power of love, kindness and happiness that defined her.
“If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love.”
That night in Charlottesville, Maya Angelou made me laugh until my sides hurt, but she also rendered me breathless and speechless with the courage threaded through every story of personal survival she told. Her zest for life was undeniable, and her belief that we, as humans, can and should do all in our power to make the world a more wonderful place was inspiring. Back then, and moreso today, I feel lucky to have been in her presence.
We need only look at the recent outpouring of grief and love to know that Maya Angelou made this wild world of ours more brilliant and beautiful by being true to herself, leading by example, and embodying exactly what she herself proclaimed to be:
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
— excerpt from “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou