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Maya Angelou tributes take a cue from the poet herself

Maya Angelou in March 2008. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Of course, President Obama, in his tribute on the passing of Maya Angelou, “one of the brightest lights of our time,” would quote Angelou, calling her “a truly phenomenal woman.”

The remembrances of Angelou, who died Wednesday at age  86 in her Winston-Salem, N.C., home, are filled with her own words – her distinctive voice that touched and inspired so many, from presidents to just folks.

“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.”

She made so many women proud. Janet Jackson may have played “Poetic Justice,” the lead in the 1993 John Singleton film that also starred Tupac Shakur. But the poems – like “Phenomenal Woman” – that her character wrote and spoke were written by Angelou, who also acted in a small role, though nothing was small in her hands. She appeared in “Roots,” on “Sesame Street,” was a frequent talk-show guest and offered advice to Richard Pryor and Chris Rock.

The poet, memoirist, activist, professor, singer, dancer, Renaissance woman, both crossed and ignored lines as she made the journey from the segregated South to world-wide figure, with startling stops along the way.

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

“Still I Rise,” with its resilient refrain, earned her an unofficial title of “the bard of black women,” though her influence extended beyond any boundaries.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s one of her most quoted lines, one with special meaning when I met her from time to time, a benefit of living in North Carolina, her home base when she wasn’t on the road receiving honors, sharing advice and making others feel as though she were an old friend – a particularly eloquent one who said exactly what you needed to hear in that moment.

It was hard to concentrate and just listen, at times, because – well — you were having a conversation with Maya Angelou. But you had to be on your toes, as she demanded intellectual rigor and accountability. How could you disappoint Angelou or yourself?

At the annual Maya Angelou Women Who Lead luncheon in Charlotte, where prominent women gathered to honor their own and wear fabulous hats, Angelou would hold court, take photos and compliment you – if she appreciated your creative expression. The city’s impressive ladies were reduced to admirers in her regal presence. That was important, as well. She always carried herself with dignity, something the world historically tried to deny black women. She demanded the respect that each one of us craves – we all knew it would get better because, in a continuing struggle, she was on our side.

In a life with more than its share of personal and professional obstacles, she deftly excelled. In the 1940s, when she was a teen, Angelou saw the trim uniforms on San Francisco cable car conductors, set her mind on getting that job and worked to earn a spot as the first African American female conductor on the city’s iconic mode of transport. Add a lifetime achievement award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials to the Presidential Medal of the Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It’s no wonder that “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” conveyed the transcendent spirit that told the world that her life, and the lives of so many others who had been marginalized, deserved attention. The president said her voice “helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves.  In fact, she inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”

Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican, also praised this “daughter of the South.” In a statement, he said: “… she played an important role in our country and will be remembered for embodying so much of the American spirit — determination, grace and faith. Her work has touched the lives of millions of people around the world.”

That voice will never be silent as long as those she touched keep repeating her written and spoken words and passing them on.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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