TIME remembrance

Watch Maya Angelou Read a Poem at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration

Angelou became the first black and first female inaugural poet in 1993, and her deep, majestic voice left an indelible mark

Maya Angelou was the second poet in history to be present at a presidential inauguration, when in 1993 she read On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton’ inauguration ceremony.

Angelou, like Clinton, had grown up in Arkansas, and that chilly January day in 1993 consecrated the poet in the eyes of Americans for two decades to come.

Angelou also read a poem for President George W. Bush, when she recited Amazing Peace at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House.

(Video courtesy: William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

TIME remembrance

Advice From Maya Angelou: “Don’t Trust People Who Don’t Laugh”

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou attends the Norman Mailer Center's fifth annual benefit gala at the New York Public Library on Oct. 17, 2013, in New York City. Michael Loccisano—Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center

The influential writer has died at age 86

Not every moment in the life of Maya Angelou, the prolific writer who died today at 86, was something to laugh at: as TIME’s Lev Grossman recounts in his remembrance, her youth was a period marred by abuse and suffering. Still, Angelou repeatedly took the chance to remind others about the importance of laughter.

It was a piece of advice she dispensed frequently often over the years, particularly when speaking to young people. A 1998 report of her visit to the University of Buffalo included that idea: “Don’t trust people who don’t laugh,” she told the audience, after speaking about a painful time in her own life. “I don’t.”

As recently as last year, she expanded on that wisdom again, when speaking to Anderson Cooper on CNN:

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were brothers. They had incredible senses of humor. They could make you laugh in the worst of times, and they did so. And you know, I never trust people who don’t laugh, who said, “I am serious” and act as if they put airplane glue on the back of their hands and stuck the glue to their foreheads. I think, “You’re not serious; you’re boring as hell.”

If you’re serious, you really understand that it’s important that you laugh as much as possible and admit that you’re the funniest person you ever met. You have to laugh. Admit that you’re funny. Otherwise, you die in solemnity.

In the poem “Old Folks Laugh,” included in her 1997 collection of poetry, I Shall Not Be Moved, she made clear that her advice about laughter wasn’t just about not taking yourself too seriously. The poem’s conclusion states that laughter is still the best medicine: “When old folks laugh, they consider the promise / of dear painless death, and generously / forgive life for happening / to them.”

TIME remembrance

Celebrities Pay Tribute to Maya Angelou on Twitter

Notables from J.K. Rowling to Mary J. Blige commemorate the passing of the celebrated poet at 86

Renowned American author and poet Maya Angelou died today at the age of 86 in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Best known for her poetry and autobiographical works like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she’s been an inspiring source of wisdom for many generations.

Thousands have already taken to social media to mourn the icon, sharing their favorite quotes, lessons (using the #MayaTaughtMe hashtag) and even links to her last poetic tweet:

(Read Lev Grossman’s obituary here)

TIME obituary

Maya Angelou: A Hymn to Human Endurance

Maya Angelou in 1996.
Maya Angelou in 1996. Chuck Burton—AP

Remembering a life of relentless creativity.

When Maya Angelou was 16 she became not only the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco but the first woman conductor. By the time she was 40 she had also been, in no particular order, a cook, a waitress, a madam, a prostitute, a dancer, an actress, a playwright, an editor at an English-language newspaper in Egypt, and a Calypso singer (her one album is entitled “Miss Calypso.”) It wasn’t until 1970, when she was 41, that she became an author: her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, told the story of her life up to the age of 17. That remarkable life story ended today at the age of 86.

In her last years Angelou’s work became associated with a certain easy, commercial sentimentality—she loaned her name to a line of Hallmark cards, for example—but there was nothing easy about her beginnings. She was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was 3. When she was 7 her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She testified against him in court, but before he could be sentenced he was found beaten to death in an alley. Angelou’s response to the trauma was to become virtually mute – she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak in public for the next 5 years. She often cited this silent period as a time when she became intimately aware of the written word.

Angelou eventually regained her voice, but her life remained chaotic. She became a mother at 17, immediately after graduating high school. She bounced from city to city, job to job and spouse to spouse (she picked up the name Angelou from one of her husbands; “Maya” was her brother’s nickname for her). She spent years living in Egypt and then in Ghana. By the time she was 40 her life story and her distinctive, charismatic way with words had her friends—among them James Baldwin—begging her to write it all down. She finally did.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Angelou describes herself as “a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” Although generations of high school students have been assigned it, the book’s unsparing account of black life in the South during the Depression, and of her sexual abuse, is not easy reading. It is Angelou’s tough, funny, lyrical voice that transforms her story from a litany of isolation and suffering into a hymn of glorious human endurance. That extraordinary voice—dense, idiosyncratic, hilarious, alive—brought novelistic techniques to the task of telling a life story, and its influence on later generations of memoirists, from Maxine Hong Kingston to Elizabeth Gilbert, is incalculable. (Angelou also mixed fact and fiction, unapologetically, long before James Frey.) The themes she expounded in Caged Bird, of suffering and self-reliance, would be braided through the rest of her long life’s work. “All my work, my life, everything is about survival,” Angelou said. “All my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.’ In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for a National Book Award, and it was followed by a torrent of creative output in every possible medium. Angelou wrote five more volumes of autobiography and six books of poetry. She was nominated for an Emmy for playing Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in Roots. She wrote children’s books and essays and the lyrics to a musical, King. She acted in movies and even directed one, Down in the Delta. She took to the national stage in 1993 when she read a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Clinton’s inauguration.

Angelou’s energy was enormous and her activity incessant. Though her education stopped after high school, she held a lifetime professorship at Wake Forest and collected honorary degrees from 50 more colleges and universities. She lectured 80 times a year. From 1981 on she lived in a brick house in Winston-Salem; despite her various marriages she lived alone, and her first child was also her last. A commanding figure at 6 ft. tall, she rose at 4 or 5 every morning and went to a bare room at a nearby motel to work, alone with a stack of legal pads, a Bible, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a bottle of sherry.

Her relentless creativity didn’t balk at her own obituary, and as usual she put it better than anyone else could have. “What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love,” Angelou told an interviewer in 1985. “By love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings.”

TIME 10 Questions

10 Questions With Maya Angelou

“I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time,” Angelou told TIME in 2013

Mom & Me & Mom is your seventh autobiography. How many more will you write?

I’ll be celebrating my 85th birthday [on April 4]. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time.”

Your mother sent you away when you were 3 and — except for a brief period with her when you were 7 and her boyfriend raped you — you didn’t see her again until you were 13. Yet this book is full of love for her. How did that happen?

I didn’t know her. I didn’t trust her. But I began to like her because she was kind. I said, “I’d like to call you Lady.” She told everybody, “Call me Lady from now on.” Amazing. And she was kind to people, all sorts of people — white ones and black ones and Spanish-speaking ones. If they needed something, my mother was the one.

You endured some really horrible things, mostly at the hands of men. Have gender relations progressed?

No, I think men are as crazy as they were and women as crazy as they were. I think it’s wise when women say what they like and don’t like and will and won’t take. Men ought to do the same. I’ve never had a dislike for men. I’ve been badly treated by some. But I’ve been loved greatly by some. I married a lot of them.

At 15 you were the first African-American conductor on a cable car in San Francisco. Why that job?

The women wore beautiful uniforms, and they had this change belt — click, click, click, click. I went to apply. No one would even give me an application. My mother said, “Take one of your big Russian books and sit there. I did, for two weeks — I hated it. But I didn’t want to go home and tell my mother I wasn’t woman enough. Finally, a man asked me, “Why do you want this?” I said, “I like the uniforms. I like people.” I got the job.

You’re friends with Nichelle Nichols, who most people know as Lieutenant Uhura. Did you watch Star Trek?

I loved Star Trek. I spoke to her. I spoke right to the television. “Hi, Nichelle!”

Did you inherit your mother’s fondness for guns?

I like to have guns around. I don’t like to carry them.

Have you ever fired your weapon?

I was in my house in North Carolina. It was fall. I heard someone walking on the leaves. And somebody actually turned the knob. So I said, “Stand four feet back because I’m going to shoot now!” Boom! Boom! The police came by and said, “Ms. Angelou, the shots came from inside the house.” I said, “Well, I don’t know how that happened.”

Are you optimistic about the future of poetry?

Oh, yes. All I have to do is listen to hip-hop or some of the rappers. I listen to country-western music. I write some country music. There’s a song called “I Hope You Dance.” Incredible. I was going to write that poem; somebody beat me to it.

Your mother asked you to talk to her last husband, who wasn’t keeping up in the boudoir. How did that go?

Oh, it was terrible. It was so embarrassing. But my mother asked me to do it. She said, “He won’t take care of business. He’s afraid he’s gonna have a heart attack.” So [after she went out], I call. I said, “Papa, you say that Mom’s appetites are good.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Now, Papa, please excuse me. But all her appetites are good. And there’s one that only you can handle.” Oh, gosh. So many white people don’t know that black people blush.

Do you have any unfinished business?

I’ve still not written as well as I want to. I want to write so that the reader in Des Moines, Iowa, in Kowloon, China, in Cape Town, South Africa, can say, “You know, that’s the truth. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a six-foot black girl, but that’s the truth.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser