America lost one of its ambassadors for social justice Wednesday with the death of Maya Angelou, someone the Lima region was fortunate enough to see up close on three occasions.
Angelou, 86, was a warrior for peace, equality and tolerance who walked the streets of the common person and rubbed elbows with world leaders.
Lima saw the poet and author at her best in 1997 when she spoke at its community-wide Diversity Day celebration. “People are more alike than they are different,” she reminded the large crowd at Veterans Memorial Civic Center that day. “All people want safe streets. Everybody wants to find somebody to love and to have the unmitigated gall to accept love in return.”
Life threw its best punches at Angelou, but never knocked her down.
As a young girl she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Later, as a single mother, she earned a living by performing at strip clubs. None of that could rob her of her spirit, or the words that she was able to put on paper.
She would eventually tell her story through one of the most widely read memoirs of the past few decades, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
That opened doors for her, and she never let them close.
She would work as an actress, director, playwright, composer, singer and dancer. At all stops, she was a social crusader who passionately defended the rights of young people and the ignored, while at the same time urging them to take control of their lives.
One such occasion came during a visit to Lima Senior in 1986 for a Black History Month event. That day she trumpeted personal accountability and told students to embrace optimism in the face of hardship.
Another moment came in 2005 when she spent two hours singing, performing poems and sharing the funny and sometimes heart-breaking story of her life at Starr Commonwealth’s Montcalm School for Girls, a residential treatment center for troubled teenagers in Van Wert.
The stories about Angelou being a role model for African-American women also are legendary. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, “She understood what it meant to grow up black and female, and taught generations of African-American women how to carry themselves with pride, strength, intelligence and confidence.”
In that regard, she once 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. “The first problem is you don’t have women in here of equal status. We need to correct you before you can correct the country,” she told them.
Angelou grew as the world grew. The tools of her message started with poetry and books, then went on to television and later to Twitter, Facebook and a weekly SiriusXM satellite radio show.
“I’ve seen many things, I’ve learned many things,” Angelou told The Associated Press in 2013. “I’ve certainly been exposed to many things and I’ve learned something: I owe it to you to tell you.”
That she did. And today, we are richer because of it.