I was completely shocked when I read the news announcement that you, revered poet, author, actress and social advocate, died today at age 86. Although we never personally met, I feel compelled to say goodbye.

Because you were always so humble, I doubt that you saw yourself for the truly dynamic woman you were. But that is exactly why you will be missed by many the world over, and why your legacy will live on for years to come.

I remember the first time I ever heard your name. A junior high school teacher  introduced our class to your autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. This powerful account about survival, redemption and ultimate forgiveness had quite the impact on me and I have treasured that book and reread it several times over the years.

Later in life, when I started writing fiction and poetry of my own, I oftentimes looked to you for inspiration. Although I was a white boy, I could relate to you so much because we had dealt with many of the same issues: growing up in the South, prejudiced people, finding power and solace in the written word. Your words strengthened me often.

As an adult, I had the opportunity to hear you speak when you visited the University of Cincinnati. Even in age, you were riveting, and you amazed me with your ability to render an entire audience of college students silent as they strained to hear every word and learn from your hard-won wisdom.

For a time, Hallmark featured a line of greeting cards that you wrote. Anytime I wanted to encourage a friend, I found myself picking up those cards and sending one on to them, because I knew how much your words always comforted and buoyed me when I needed a little bolstering.

Today, it is difficult to find real heroes in this world. And even though I'd bet that you would never see yourself that way, you are a hero to me, a truly 'phenomenal woman' who taught me to open my eyes and heart to the possibilities of life, even in the wake of personal tragedy.

Most of all, you were a great teacher. The greatest lesson you taught me was when you said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." I memorized those words long ago and sometimes repeat them like a mantra, while at other moments I whisper them like a prayer.

Like so many of the great poets and writers who went before you, I know that I will always treasure your work, revisiting favorite passages for many years to come. Thank you for all you have done.

With greatest admiration and utmost respect,


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