NEW YORK: Maya Angelou, a Renaissance woman who survived the harshest of childhoods to become a force on stage, screen, the printed page and the inaugural dais, has died. She was 86.
Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina – where she had served as a professor of American Studies since 1982 – confirmed her death.
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.
The childhood victim of rape wrote a million-selling memoir, befriended Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and the Rev. 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, sometimes-censored reading, and was the first of a multipart autobiography that continued through the decades.
She mastered several languages and published poetry, advice books, cookbooks and children’s stories. She wrote music, plays and screenplays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in “Roots.” She never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.
“If you watch [Mikhail] Baryshnikov and you see that line, that’s what the poet tries for,” she said before her birthday in 2008. “The poet tries for the line, the balance.”
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 to the point of danger. Packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas, at age 7 she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t speak for years. She learned by reading, and listening.
“I started reading, really reading, at about 7 and a half, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library,” she told AP. “And I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it.”
At age 9, 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 her first of three husbands, then divorced.
By her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. She spent a few days with Billie Holiday, was surly enough to heckle her off the stage and even astute enough to tell her, “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”
After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage, she toured in “Porgy and Bess” and Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” and danced with Alvin Ailey.
She 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 organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tennessee, where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.
Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” James Baldwin persuaded the still-grieving Angelou 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 musical style was clear in a passage about German fighter Max Schmeling’s defeat of boxing great Joe Louis.
“My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. ... If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.”
In the 1960s, Malcolm X had written to Angelou and praised her for her ability to communicate so directly, with her “feet firmly rooted on the ground.”
In a 1999 essay in Harper’s, however, author Francine Prose criticized Angelou’s memoir “Caged Bird” as “manipulative” melodrama.
Meanwhile, Angelou’s passages about her rape and teen pregnancy have made the book 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 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.”