You Increase Me: Remembering Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an activist up until the very end of her life: visible, accessible, present to the people to whom her work and her message of hope meant the most.

When we heard the news of Maya Angelou’s death this morning, it was a matter of moments until tears began to flow—and only a moment more before stories followed. Most of our staff have connections to Dr. Angelou’s legacy as a writer and artist. But these stories were personal.

When Teaching Tolerance wanted to use a version of her poem “Still I Rise” set to music for the film Bullied, our president, Richard Cohen, reached out to Angelou through SPLC board member Julian Bond. She sprang into action and immediately gave permission, telling Cohen, “If you can't be used, you’re useless.”

One of our teaching and learning specialists told a story about Angelou’s visit to a Washington, D.C., juvenile detention center, where Angelou spoke to the boys who were incarcerated there. She listened to their poetry, gave them advice and told them that, if they ever wanted to attend one of her speaking engagements, just to tell security they were her nephews. “You increase me,” she told her audience, reminding them that love and justice grow us all as people.

And, within minutes of posting about her death on social media, one of our Facebook followers shared a story of meeting Angelou in an airport after hearing her singing in line. “We had a delightful conversation,” he shared, “and she encouraged me to continue my work with teachers.”

Behind these stories was a woman who was not only an artistic genius but also a great social thinker. Angelou was an activist until the very end of her life. She was visible, accessible and present to the people to whom her message of hope meant the most. She cared deeply about children and understood what it was like to be a child without a voice. Her mind, heart and generous spirit increased all who knew her—personally and otherwise.

Dr. Angelou, on behalf of our community and all those whose lives you touched with your words and your voice, we thank you.

van der Valk is managing editor for Teaching Tolerance.

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