SAN FRANSISCO - Maya Angelou walked into a meeting of civil rights leaders discussing affirmative action back in the 1990s, looked around, and put them all in their place with a single, astute observation.
âShe came into the room,â recalled Al Sharpton, âand she said: âThe first problem is you donât have women in here of equal status. We need to correct you before you can correct the country.ââ
Angelou, who died Wednesday at 86, made an impact on American culture that transcended her poetry and searing memoirs. She was the nationâs wise woman, a poet to presidents, an unapologetic conscience who became such a touchstone that grief over her loss poured from political leaders, celebrities and ordinary people in generous doses.
âAbove all, she was a storyteller â and her greatest stories were true,â President Barack Obama said.
Never hesitant to speak her mind, Angelou passionately defended the rights of women, young people and the ignored. She effortlessly traversed the worlds of literature and activism, becoming a confidante to the original civil rights leaders, their successors and the current generation.
âIâve seen many things, Iâve learned many things,â Angelou told The Associated Press in 2013. âIâve certainly been exposed to many things and Iâve learned something: I owe it to you to tell you.â
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, remembered the âincredibly powerful experienceâ of being invited to Angelouâs home. They sat at her kitchen table for hours, Morial said, as Angelou told stories and talked about life, art, culture and humankind.
âWith equal parts majesty and humility, she held court â and I listened intently, absorbing every word and meaning that she had to impart,â Morial said.
A former singer and dancer â as well as once being the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco â she also put her imprint on the new world of celebrity, mentoring Oprah Winfrey, instructing Alicia Keys in âlining out,â a call-and-response form of singing popular in Southern black churches, acting in a television sketch with Richard Pryor, and inspiring singers, authors and actors of all races and genders.
Angelou was a âphenomenal woman of insight, eloquence and artistry who gave voice to the rawness and loftiness of our history and our humanity,â said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the nationâs first female speaker of the House of Represntatives.
Angelouâs talents and platforms were boundless: poetry, books, movies, the spoken word, television, a weekly SiriusXM satellite radio show and even Twitter and Facebook. She collected accolades from all portions of society: a Tony Award in 1973 for her appearance in the play âLook Awayâ; three Grammys for her spoken-word albums; an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community; a National Medal of Arts; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the countryâs highest civilian honour.
Whether talking about the scourge of discrimination or the evil of sexism, âshe has much to teach this generation and generations unborn about what it means to be an authentic person, and the power of the genuine,â the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.
Before becoming a famed author, Angelou worked as a co-ordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Nelson Mandela, who became a longtime friend, and Malcolm X, to whom she remained close until his assassination in 1965.
Three years later, she was helping Rev. Martin Luther King organize the Poor Peopleâs March in Memphis, Tennessee. King was assassinated there, on Angelouâs 40th birthday.
âEvery year, on that day, Coretta and I would send each other flowers,â Angelou said of Kingâs widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.
Women sympathized and empathized with Angelouâs hardscrabble life. Born poor and black, she was a childhood victim of rape, shamed into silence. She was a young single mother who had to work at strip clubs for a living. She took all of that and turned it into âI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,â one of the most widely read memoirs of the past few decades.
âHer gifts were born out of pain,â said Patricia Rosier, president of the National Bar Association. âThis allowed those who came before us and those after us to rise. She was not afraid to fiercely explore her self-identity so that we, too, could fully be who we are. â
The mother to a son, Angelou mentored many âdaughters,â some through her work, others personally like Winfrey, who said Angelou âmoved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace.â