Maya Angelou: A ‘warrior for equality, tolerance and peace’

Maya Angelou, a poet and author who rose from poverty, segregation and the harshest of childhoods to become a force on stage, screen and the printed page, has died. She was 86 years old.

Angelou died on Wednesday morning at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, according to her son Guy B Johnson. The 86-year-old had been a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University since 1982.

“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace,” Johnson said.

Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, Angelou defied all probability and category, becoming one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author and thriving in virtually every artistic medium. The young, single mother who performed at strip clubs to earn a living later wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history. And the childhood victim of rape wrote a million-selling memoir, befriended Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and the Reverent Martin Luther King Jr, and performed on stages around the world.

An actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s, she broke through as an author in 1970 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became standard (and occasionally censored) reading and was the first of a multipart autobiography that continued through the decades.


Presidential sensation
In 1993, she was a sensation reading her cautiously hopeful On the Pulse of the Morning at former president Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. Her confident performance openly delighted Clinton and made the poem a bestseller, if not a critical favourite. For former president George W Bush, she read another poem, Amazing Peace, at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House.

She remained close enough to the Clintons that in 2008 she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy over the ultimately successful run of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama. But a few days before Obama’s inauguration, she was clearly overjoyed. She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she would be watching it on television “somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know”.

Obama said her death had dimmed “one of the brightest lights of our time”.

He added: “A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking, but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves.”

Angelou was a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, whom she befriended when Winfrey was still a local television reporter, and often appeared on her friend’s talk show programme. 

Avid writer
She mastered several languages and published not just poetry, but advice books, cookbooks and children’s stories. She wrote music, plays and screenplays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in Roots and never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.

“The line of the dancer: If you watch [Mikhail] Baryshnikov and you see that line, that’s what the poet tries for. The poet tries for the line, the balance,” she told the Associated Press (AP) in 2008, shortly before her birthday.

Her very name as an adult was a reinvention. Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother. She was smart and fresh to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn’t speak at all: at the age of seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t speak for years. She learned by reading and listening.

“I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: ‘Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,'” she told the AP. “It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And Deep River Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about seven and a half, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library … and I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it.”

At age nine, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel, was married (to Enistasious Tosh Angelos, her first of three husbands) and then divorced. 

By her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou’s son Guy, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”

New name
After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage (Maya was a childhood nickname), she toured in Porgy and Bess and Jean Genet’s The Blacks, and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a co-ordinator for civil rights group Southern Christian Leadership Conference and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organise the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tennessee, where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.

“Every year, on that day, Coretta and I would send each other flowers,” Angelou said of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.

Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which might not have happened if James Baldwin hadn’t persuaded Angelou, still grieving over King’s death, to attend a party at Jules Feiffer’s house. Feiffer was so taken by Angelou that he mentioned her to Random House editor Bob Loomis, who persuaded her to write a book.

Angelou’s memoir was occasionally attacked, for seemingly opposite reasons. In a 1999 essay in Harper’s, author Francine Prose criticised Caged Bird as “manipulative” melodrama. Meanwhile, Angelou’s passages about her rape and teen pregnancy have made it a perennial on the American Library Association’s list of works that draw complaints from parents and educators.

“I thought that it was a mild book. There’s no profanity,” Angelou told the AP. “It speaks about surviving, and it really doesn’t make ogres of many people. I was shocked to find there were people who really wanted it banned, and I still believe people who are against the book have never read the book.”

Angelou appeared on several TV programmes, notably the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her appearance in the play Look Away. She directed the film Down in the Delta, about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta. She won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community. – Sapa-AP

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