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maya angelou
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
And still she rose.
I RISE

Maya Angelou changed Americans’ idea of whose stories are worth telling

By Thu-Huong Ha

Maya Angelou died in 2014, but today would have been her 90th birthday. During her lifetime, the writer was a towering cultural figure, whose stories of trauma and racism showed that the stories of black women could find mainstream success.

Google celebrates the poet, memoirist, and playwright with its doodle illustration today, as well as with an animated video built around her rousing poem “Still I Rise,” featuring Angelou’s own voice alongside a slew of stars, including Oprah Winfrey, Laverne Cox, and Alicia Keys.

Angelou’s gritty and intensely personal memoirs were a powerful demonstration to the American publishing industry and literary community that the stories of black women mattered, even to white readers. The first of her memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1970. Angelou recalls her childhood, in which she was first shipped away by her parents, then collected back without warning, a few years later, to live with her mother. Angelou writes of how she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and the ensuing swirl of guilt and panic when he was tried, released, then beaten to death.

Wrote Hilton Als in 2002:

As Mary Helen Washington writes in her invaluable study “Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960,” black women autobiographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been “frozen into self-consciousness by the need to defend black women and men against the vicious and prevailing stereotypes.” Relegated to the margins of life, they found it difficult to rewrite themselves as central characters. Only in private could they talk about their personal lives. But Angelou took those stories public.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings spent at least six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, which was exceedingly rare for an African American woman writing in the 1970s. Zora Neale Hurston, who published Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, didn’t achieve mainstream critical acclaim until after her death, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved wouldn’t be published until 1987.

Angelou recited her poem ”On the Pulse of Morning” (video) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2010.