My first introduction to Maya Angelou was her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was a young teenage girl in Mrs. Simms English II class at Western High School in Baltimore, Maryland when I entered the world of this incredible woman - a world that began with pain and disadvantage.
Many of us know the statuesque she-ro - the acclaimed poet, author, Civil Rights activist, actor, singer, friend and co-laborer with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. That was Maya Angelou.
But she was also the little girl whose parents divorced when she was only 3-years-old. The young child who was then uprooted from her native St. Louis, Missouri and planted in small-town Stamp, Arkansas with her grandmother. The tender baby girl of eight who was raped by her mother's boyfriend and stripped of her innocence.
She was also the courageous young child who exposed this crime and her assailant, revealing it to her family. The little girl who refused to speak for six whole years, after hearing the news that her rapist had been killed.
Praise the Lord, she had the courage to speak again. I can't imagine if she'd remained silent for the rest of her life. If she'd refused to speak the words of life that will live on beyond her 86 years on earth.
Words like these found in the last stanza of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings":
Here's what I've learned as I've pondered the life of Dr. Maya Angelou. In courage, in faith, in love for God, myself and others, I must "rise" above life's challenges.
No one can deny that Maya emerged from humble beginnings. She was born with a bitter spoon in her mouth, and her childhood became increasingly difficult. Divorce, estrangement from her parents, rape - do not a happy childhood make.
And yet what did she ultimately do with her pain? She used her pain to bless others. After years of healing, she told her story. She nurtured her gifts and talents - acting and singing and writing and speaking - and shared them with the world.
And from that sharing, she gave us masterpieces like "Still I Rise". Here's a sampling from the last stanza:
Maya, you are no longer a caged bird.
You sang a song of love, affirmation and wisdom.
You sang a song of freedom.
I know why you sing.
You sing because you're free.
May we, too, sing of freedom.