LOS ANGELES — Maya Angelou, the poet, actress and prolific memoirist, whose most celebrated work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” established her as a clear-eyed interpreter of the black experience, has died. She was 86.
Her death was announced Wednesday by Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she had taught American studies since the 1980s.
Angelou was a diva of American culture whose bestselling autobiographies portrayed a complex, freewheeling life. She was an actress, singer and dancer, who toured internationally in “Porgy and Bess” and played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the television miniseries “Roots;” a film director, playwright and professor with a lifetime appointment at Wake Forest; an author of inspirational essays, and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet (for “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie”) who wrote verses for Hallmark cards and the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
Her most enduring achievement was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969), the first of six memoirs. Universal in its themes yet compellingly particular in its details about being a black girl in a white world, it is a story of survival that embraces what she called a “culture of disclosure,” exposing the ugliness as well as the beauty in a prodigiously inventive life.
The book became a bestseller and a staple of high school and college reading lists. At the same time, its graphic descriptions of racism and sexual abuse secured Angelou a place on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged authors.
Angelou defended the work for its message of hope and transcendence.
“In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays,” she told Paris Review in 1990, “I am saying that we may encounter many defeats — maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats — but we are much stronger than we appear to be, and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be.”
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis but moved to Long Beach, Calif., with her parents shortly after her birth. When she was 3 and her brother, Bailey, was 4, her parents split up and her father sent them to live with his mother in Stamps, Ark., a “musty little town” that was so segregated, Angelou wrote, that “most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like.”
Her grandmother, who ran a general store, tried to make her granddaughter feel safe and loved, but Angelou saw herself as an ugly, tongue-tied misfit abandoned by her parents. She longed for blond hair and pretty dresses instead of black skin and clothes cast off by their white owners. “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,” she wrote.
After four years in Stamps, Angelou and her brother returned to their mother, Vivian Baxter, who had moved to St. Louis. Angelou worshipped Baxter, a beautiful, fiercely independent woman who supported herself in nontraditional occupations, including professional gambler and merchant seaman. “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power,” Angelou would later write. “Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.”
Baxter’s boyfriend lived with them. Angelou identified him as “Mr. Freeman” and described him as a “big brown bear” who seldom spoke to the children. One Saturday when her mother was away, he raped her. Freeman was tried and convicted, but before he could serve his sentence he was found beaten to death.
His murder shocked the 8-year-old Angelou into silence. Because she had told on him and later testified at his trial, “I thought if I spoke I could kill anyone,” she said years later.
She and Bailey were sent back to their grandmother in Stamps where, for the next five years, she spoke to no one except her brother. She might have clung to muteness much longer if not for the intervention of a woman in town named Bertha Flowers, described by Angelou as “the aristocrat of Black Stamps.”
Flowers knew the silent girl read voraciously but, as she told her over tea and cookies one afternoon, words “mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” When Flowers read aloud from “A Tale of Two Cities,” Angelou said she “heard poetry for the first time in my life.” She began to memorize and recite poems by Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Longfellow and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. She wound up graduating at the top of her eighth-grade class.
After graduation, she and her brother rejoined their mother, who had moved to San Francisco. She attended George Washington High School and won a scholarship to study drama and dance at the California Labor School. To earn pocket money, she worked as a streetcar conductor and was, by her account, the first African-American woman to hold the job.
At 16, after a clumsy sexual encounter with a neighborhood boy, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Clyde Bailey Johnson, nicknamed Guy. She graduated from San Francisco’s Mission High School and struggled to raise her son on her own through a succession of jobs, including “a shake dancer in nightclubs, fry cook in hamburger joints, dinner cook in a Creole restaurant and once had a job in a mechanic’s shop, taking the paint off cars with my hands.” In San Diego, she was a madam who managed a couple of prostitutes. For a period of time, she was addicted to drugs.
In 1949, she married a white ex-sailor, Tosh Angelos, but they divorced after three years. Commandingly tall at 6 feet, with a deep voice and theatrical manner, she moved to New York to study dance, then returned to San Francisco, sharing billing as a singer at the Purple Onion cabaret with comedian Phyllis Diller, who would become a close friend.
Riffing off her ex-husband’s last name and her brother’s nicknames for her, she began performing as Maya Angelou. She won a role in a touring production of “Porgy and Bess” and performed in 22 countries from 1954 to 1955.
She spent the late 1950s in New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and met novelist-playwright James Baldwin. In 1960, when she was appearing in Jean Genet’s Obie-winning play “The Blacks,” she joined the civil rights movement, co-producing a benefit cabaret for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group co-founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King. For a brief time she led the SCLC’s New York operation.
During this period she met Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter, and moved with him and her son to Cairo, where she worked as an editor for the Arab Observer.
When her relationship with Make ended, she moved to Ghana, where she worked as a college administrator, editor and writer.
She returned to the United States in 1964 to work as an organizer for Malcolm X, but he was assassinated before she could begin that work. She lectured at UCLA and wrote, produced and directed “Black. Blues, Black,” a 10-part public television series on African-American culture that aired in 1968. That year she also helped in the planning of King’s Poor People’s March in Memphis. The day he was assassinated was Angelou’s 40th birthday.
While still in mourning over King, she was invited by writer James Baldwin to a party at the home of Jules Feiffer. Feiffer’s wife, Judy, was enchanted by Angelou’s stories and urged a Random House editor she knew to sign Angelou to a contract.
When “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was published in 1969, it was hailed as a new mode of autobiography, one that described the black experience “from the inside, without apology or defense,” Mary Helen Washington wrote in a study of black female autobiographers.
A New York Times bestseller for two years, it presaged a wave of black feminist fiction in the 1970s and ’80s by such authors as Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara.
Walker found it “incredibly powerful and marvelous in its capacity to move people to share their experiences.”
“Caged Bird” remains the most highly regarded of her autobiographies, which also include “Gather Together in My Name” (1974), “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1977), “The Heart of a Woman” (1981), “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986) and “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002).
Poet Wanda Coleman, in a review for the Los Angeles Times, wrote the gifts Angelou demonstrated in her most famous work “have deserted her in ‘Song,’ ” which Coleman attacked as “a sloppily written fake.” Critic Hilton Als, writing in the New Yorker in 2002, said Angelou’s later memoirs were less successful because her original goal, “to tell the truth about the lives of black … seems, after her first volume, to have evolved into something else: to document the ups and downs of her own life.”
In later years, Angelou’s highs included becoming one of the first African-American women to have an original screenplay produced (“Georgia, Georgia,” released in 1972) and direct a major feature film (“Down in the Delta” in 1998).
Angelou was deliberately fuzzy about the number of husbands she had. “I will say how old I am, I will say how tall I am, but I will not say how many times I have been married. It might frighten them off,” she said in 1983, after ending a 10-year marriage to Paul Du Feu, a writer and cartoonist.
She wrote more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie” (1971), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her poems were notable for their jazzy rhythms and themes of struggle and transcendence, as in “Still I Rise”: “You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies,/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Critics said she wrote homilies disguised as poems, a view that was not substantially altered in 1993 when she wrote “On the Pulse of Morning” for fellow Arkansan Clinton’s inauguration. Only two poets before her had been so honored: Robert Frost read at John F. Kennedy’s swearing-in in 1961 and James Dickey at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977.
Angelou’s inaugural verse won mixed reviews. One of the most stinging comments came from Yale scholar and critic Harold Bloom, who told the Hartford Courant in 1994 that Angelou “cannot write her way out of a paper bag.” But her powerful delivery on national television led a new generation of readers to discover her: “Caged Bird” rose to the top of bestseller lists again, more than two decades after its original publication.
In 2011, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Her short, lyric works spoke so strongly to the masses that Hallmark created a line of products, including greeting cards and pillows, featuring her words. To some, writing for Hallmark confirmed she was not a serious poet, but Angelou was not bothered. Even as she grew frailer, her lungs weakened by decades of smoking, she captivated audiences in her last years, telling the stories of her life. One of the poems she frequently read was “On Aging”:
I’m the same person I was back then
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.
In addition to her son, Angelou is survived by a grandson and two great-grandchildren.
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