Dr. Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou

Photo by Chester Higgins, Jr.

Dr. Maya Angelou is considered one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. She has received more than 50 honorary degrees and was inducted into the Wake Forest University Hall of Fame for Writers. In her most celebrated work, the coming of age memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote poetically about her time growing up in the Jim Crow South. Throughout her life, Angelou was a poet, singer, composer, dancer, actor, civil rights activist, journalist, and director. Angelou channeled the ancestors in her writing and used all five senses to tell stories that were vivid and sensitive. In her writings, Angelou explained the effects of racism on the individual. She spoke about family, community, and the collective history of her people. Angelou found joy in life despite the traumas she overcame. 

In 1993, Angelou read her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She became the second poet to read a poem at a presidential inauguration and the first African American and woman to do so.  In 2010, President Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2022, Angelou was included in the American Women Quarters Program, a series of coins that celebrate the accomplishments of American women. She is the first Black woman to appear on the United States quarter.

Photo courtesy of United States Mint

The quarter was created by Emily Damstra and illustrates Angelou’s outstretched arms. Behind her is a silhouette of a bird in flight. The sun rises above her. Damstra’s imagery references her poems Still I Rise, On the Pulse of the Morning, and Caged Bird. The imagery embodies the “passionate way she lived.” In 2014, she died at the age of 86. Through her life and work, Maya Angelou empowered us all to speak with passion and purpose and to rise again in moments of defeat. 

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” – Maya Angelou