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Maya Angelou: The definition of a phenomenal woman

By Donna Brazile
updated 5:33 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
Maya Angelou, a renowned poet, novelist and actress best known for her book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," has died at the age of 86, according to her literary agent, Helen Brann. Maya Angelou, a renowned poet, novelist and actress best known for her book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," has died at the age of 86, according to her literary agent, Helen Brann.
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Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
Maya Angelou: Poet, novelist and actress
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile shares the joy of knowing Maya Angelou and the pain of losing her
  • Angelou, she says, was a writer, a trailblazer, an activist, a mother, a hero
  • But most of all, Angelou touched her soul, knew her heart and spoke to us all

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I lost a friend and mentor today.

Maya Angelou was the voice of three generations. Her poetry spanned our journey, chronicled our hearts and documented our struggles as we moved from the orations of Martin Luther King to the presidency of Barack Obama.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

"Dr." Maya Angelou was a phenomenal woman. A rousing spirit, a joyful soul. A remarkable and gifted writer, a trailblazer, an activist, a mother. A hero.

She was a woman who cooked up greens that could move you to dance. And yes, she danced, she loved to move. And she moved us all.

She loved her black skin and her hair. Growing up in the South, I learned to love my own skin and hair just as she taught us to. But Maya was not stuck on color or gender or religion or sexual orientation. She was fixated on humanity and helping to bring love and kindness into this world.

That's perhaps what I cherish about her the most: Like every great artist, she emerged from deep and sorrowful struggle to reveal a beautiful, confident, calm and wise soul. She used that struggle to transform herself and made us believe that we, too, could transform ourselves as well.

Maya Angelou: In her own words
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Maya Angelou: In her own words Maya Angelou: In her own words

Like the incredible tall oak trees of her beloved Arkansas, she was rooted in culture, grounded in the goodness of this earth and her amazing gift of poetry. She had a talent for weaving words into songs and songs into melodies. She wasn't afraid to sway her hips. And she inspired us to do the same.

Opinion: How Maya Angelou gave me life

Maya, we didn't tire of you. I can still hear those words she spoke on that chilly day, at the first inauguration of her fellow Arkansan, William Jefferson Clinton. Her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," is too long for me to quote in its entirety here, but I urge you, for your own sake, go read it. Here are a few of its lines:

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.


Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song. It says,
Come rest here by my side.
...


Come,
Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.

Maya Angelou also had a playful side. Like any good friend, she enjoyed the company of people. Once, my friend Minyon Moore hosted a luncheon in honor of Betty Shabazz, Cicely Tyson, Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou. It was a moment for us, the up-and-coming, to meet our heroes, to sit at their feet and learn from them.

Legendary author Maya Angelou dies
1993: Angelou at Clinton's inauguration
2013: Maya Angelou discusses MLK's dream

Before we could break bread (cornbread), Maya had everyone laughing. She was a gifted storyteller and her warmth filled up many empty hearts. She made a place for so many folks in her life, in her kitchen or on her stage. Maya was born wise and when she talked, you could hear the ancient wisdom of our ancestors. She carried that warrior spirit from Africa.

Maya Angelou remembered by those she inspired

I grew up with her poems and stories. They inspired me, they encouraged me, they taught me. I still have the paperback copies of her books I bought when I was a girl. I often wondered when I read one of her poems or stories for the first time, how does she know me? How does she understand so well who I am, what I'm going through, what questions and doubts, and triumphs and joys, I experience?

But that, of course, is what a great poet does. She speaks for herself, but she speaks for us all. And the amazing thing about Maya Angelou was that, although she was a black woman, her poems touched the souls of all Americans. For instance, what immigrant or child of immigrants, what Holocaust survivor or child of a survivor, what adolescent or mother of an adolescent does not recognize his or her own history in the justly famous, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"?

Maya Angelou: Some of her most powerful speeches

Let her rest now. Rest with Malcolm and Betty, with Coretta and Martin and Dorothy Height, with James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Let her dance with James Brown, Michael Jackson, and rejoice with Mahalia Jackson. Most of all, let her smile and be at peace with Mandela.

I will honor her today by rereading some of her poems and stories. I urge you to do the same. She gave us the gift of her words and we should treasure them. She was phenomenal, someone I loved and will forever cherish.

So, thank you Maya. A phenomenal woman.

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