May 28 (Bloomberg) -- Maya Angelou, the poet and professor whose bestselling memoirs of growing up black and female made her a beloved American storyteller, with a melodious voice and seemingly boundless optimism in the face of hardship, has died. She was 86.
She died today at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, according to her literary agent, Helen Brann.
From a timid young girl, traumatized by racial discrimination and sexual abuse, Angelou blossomed into one of the nation’s most incisive writers and powerful speakers. Over the years she was nominated for a National Book Award for her childhood memoir and a Tony Award for her stage acting, while winning three Grammy Awards for spoken-word albums.
Her frequent lectures, appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s television show and poetry reading at Bill Clinton’s first presidential inaugural made her one of America’s best-known literary figures.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1970), the first of her six-volume autobiography, sold more than 1 million copies, was translated into 17 languages and spent two years on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. It elevated the once-struggling writer to international literary celebrity.
The memoir recounts Angelou’s upbringing in the segregated Deep South, her life’s formative trauma -- the rape she endured at 7 by her mother’s boyfriend -- and the six-year period of near-total muteness into which she retreated.
“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power,” Angelou wrote. “The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.”
For Angelou, travels in the 1950s and 1960s to Europe and Africa as an aspiring artist opened the world. She learned five languages and became fascinated with the complexity of humanity, particularly femininity.
Back in the U.S. in 1968, she was writing and producing a 10-part series on African-American culture for public television, and mourning the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., when she was contacted by Robert Loomis, an editor at Random House who had heard from mutual friends about Angelou’s skills and life story. He urged her to write a book and overcame her initial reluctance with a challenge, saying it was close to impossible to write an autobiography as literature.
Angelou took the bait and got to work on what would become “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Her follow-up was another hit, a volume of poetry, “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie’’ (1971).
Over the next 30-plus years she filled out the six-part autobiography of her early life. The final volume, ‘‘A Song Flung Up to Heaven’’ (2002), ends with her picking up a ballpoint pen to start work on the memoirs, ready to ‘‘examine the quality in the human spirit that continues to rise despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’’
Angelou, who called herself ‘‘a teacher who writes’’ rather than vice versa, became a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina, in 1981.
In 1993, she became the second poet -- after Robert Frost, in 1961 -- to speak at the inauguration of a U.S. president. She recited a new work, ‘‘On the Pulse of the Morning,’’ about a dividing nation coming together, for Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony.
‘‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” she read before an ocean of people in Washington. “Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you.”
Angelou said determination, courage and optimism were among the many traits she learned from living with her paternal grandmother in Arkansas as a young girl.
“You’ll never hear me complain. I will protest, but I will not complain,” she said in a January 2009 interview with Bloomberg News. “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats up the host.”
“But anger is like fire,” she said. “It can burn the dross out and leave materials in the ashes from which things can grow.”
Birth of ‘Maya’
Marguerite Annie Johnson was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis to Bailey Johnson, a doorman who later became a U.S. Navy cook, and the former Vivian Baxter, who emerges in her daughter’s writings as glamorous, brave and interested in so many things that motherhood at times was more burden than blessing.
Her parents divorced when Angelou was 3. She and her older brother, Bailey Jr. -- who nicknamed her Maya -- went to live in Stamps, Arkansas, with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, the town’s first black store owner, who would exert a strong influence on her granddaughter.
At 7, Angelou was visiting her mother in Chicago when her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She divulged to her brother the identity of her assailant, who was tried and convicted, then released and, soon after, found beaten to death -- perhaps by her mother’s relatives, though nobody ever was charged.
“I thought my voice was so powerful it had killed that man,” Angelou said in the Bloomberg interview. “And obviously if I spoke, my voice could just kill people. So it would be better not to speak.”
Over the next six years, she broke her self-imposed silence only on occasion, and only to her brother. Her muteness made her absorb the words of others.
“For a long time I would think of myself, my whole body, as an ear,” she told the New York Times. Out of ideas, her mother’s family sent her back to Arkansas, where her beloved grandmother once again comforted and encouraged her.
She spoke again at 13 after she and her brother moved to San Francisco to live with their mother, who had become owner of a hotel and nightclub. After attending Mission High School, Angelou received a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. She dropped out when she was 14 and became the city’s first black female cable car conductor.
She eventually returned to high school and graduated at 17, eight months pregnant after what she described as a “brief loveless embrace with a teenage boy that lasted only minutes.” Her son, Clyde, known as Guy, would be her only child and a lifelong source of joy. For money, Angelou worked a series of jobs, including as a madam for prostitutes and, briefly, a prostitute herself.
At 21 she married a Greek-American aspiring musician, Tosh Angelos, and adopted the name “Angelou” after they divorced three years later.
Pursuing dance, then singing, she performed with a young Alvin Ailey and toured Europe and the Middle East with a production of “Porgy and Bess.”
She settled with her son in New York City in 1959 and began to pursue writing at the Harlem Writers Guild, focusing on poetry and plays.
With her boyfriend, Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist whom she met in New York, Angelou moved with her son in 1960 to Cairo, where she worked as editor of an English language weekly. They settled the following year in Ghana, where Angelou surrounded herself with other African-American expatriates, befriended Malcolm X, worked as feature editor for “The African Review” and wrote for “The Ghanaian Times.”
‘Filled With Pride’
She returned to the U.S. in 1965 ready to delve into the civil-rights movement as coordinator of Malcolm X’s new Organization of Afro-American Unity. Days after her return, Malcolm X was assassinated.
Angelou would advocate racial equality throughout her life. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, she said in a CBS interview, “I’m so filled with pride for my country. What do you say? We are growing up.”
Angelou’s script for the 1972 film “Georgia, Georgia” portrayed black women as doubly alone, ill-served not just by the whites who mistreat them but by the black men who ignore them.
“I am a woman who is black and lonely,” she said in a 1972 interview with the New York Times.
Her second marriage, in 1973, was to Paul du Feu, a British-born carpenter who a year earlier had become the first male centerfold of Cosmopolitan magazine. That marriage ended in divorce after seven years.
Angelou’s triumph as a writer overshadowed her successes as a performer. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in “Look Away” (1973). She appeared in Alex Haley’s celebrated television mini-series “Roots” (1977), playing the grandmother of the slave Kunta Kinte. She directed a feature film, “Down in the Delta” (1998).
Her Grammy awards for spoken-word albums came in 1993, for “On the Pulse of Morning,” in 1995, for “Phenomenal Woman: Poems Celebrating Women,” and in 2002, for “A Song Flung Up to Heaven.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org Laurence Arnold