Poet and essayist Maya Angelou died Wednesday at the age of 86, according to reports in her hometown of Winston-Salem and USA Today.
Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines told WFMY News 2 that Angelou’s caregiver found her dead in her home Wednesday morning.
Angelou is best known for her award-winning writing, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was a keynote speaker at Black Tie Dinner in Dallas in 1997 and a participant in the Nasher Salon Speaker Series in Dallas in 2011. She appeared at the University of North Texas: An Evening with Dr. Maya Angelou in 2006.
Angelou was a high school dropout who went on to become a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
She was an American Study herself.
“I have created myself,” she told USA Today in 2007, “I have taught myself so much.”
Angelou defied simple labels. She was a walking list of careers and passions: In addition to her books, she was an actress, director, playwright, composer, singer and dancer. And if that wasn’t enough, she once worked as a madam in a brothel and as the first female and first black street car conductor in San Francisco.
She was best known for the first of her six memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), still widely read in schools. She described being raped at 7 and becoming an unwed mother at 17. (Her son, Guy Johnson, a poet and novelist, is her only immediate survivor.)
Her formal education ended in high school, but she was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees from colleges. She insisted on being called “Dr. Angelou.”
In November 2013, at the age of 85, Angelou stole the show at the National Book Awards in New York when she was presented an award for “Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.” She was introduced that night by her friend, author Toni Morrison, who said of Angelou, “Suffering energized and strengthened her, and her creative impulse struck like bolts of lightning.”
From her wheelchair, Angelou dazzled the crowd by singing a verse of a spiritual: “When it looked like it wouldn’t stop raining, God put a rainbow in the clouds.”
She then told the ballroom full of writers, editors and publishers: “You are the rainbow in my clouds.” To laughter and applause, she added, that “easy reading is damn hard writing.” In reviewing her career, she said, “For over 40 years, I have tried to tell the truth as I understand it. … I haven’t tried to tell everything I know, but I’ve tried to tell the truth.”
In January 2014, after the death of South African leader Nelson Mandela — who had read aloud Angelou’s poem, Still I Rise, at his 1994 presidential inauguration — she published His Day Is Done, a poetic tribute to Mandela commissioned by the U.S. State Department.
It reads in part: “The news came on the wings of a wind/Reluctant to carry its burden./Nelson Mandela’s day is done.”
In her 2002 memoir, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Angelou wrote of her friendship with writer James Baldwin: “Once after we had spent an afternoon talking and drinking with a group of white writers in a downtown bar, he said he liked that I could hold my liquor and my positions. He was pleased that I could defend Edgar Allan Poe and ask serious questions about Willa Cather.”
It was Baldwin who prodded Bob Loomis, an editor at Random House, to prod Angelou to write an autobiography, which she was reluctant to do.
As Angelou told the story, Loomis called several times before challenging: “You may be right not to attempt an autobiography because it is nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature. Almost impossible.”
Angelou added, “Jimmy (Baldwin) must have told him to say that, Jimmy would know how I would react to being told, ‘You can’t … ‘.
Later, Loomis said of her, “Maya is her books.”
She put it in broader terms: “I am a writer. Every writer is his or her books. Just as every singer is the song, while you’re doing it. The dancer is the dance.”
She wrote and delivered a poem at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural. Her recording of that poem, On the Pulse of Morning, won a Grammy.
She also had a deal with Hallmark to write short poems and thoughts for greeting cards, pillows and other gift items. For that, she was lampooned on Saturday Night Live.
But she shrugged off her critics, as if she has was used to being a target. “By the time I was 14, I was 6 feet tall,” she told USA Today. “I’ve never been able to hide.”
And what’s wrong, she asked, “with wanting to put poetry in people’s hands, even if they’re not going to buy a book?”
Many critics and scholars say her prose was better than her poetry, despite its popularity and the large crowds she drew to public readings, which she gave in a strong, mellifluous Southern accent.
The poem she wrote for the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree in 2005, Amazing Peace, reached No. 12 on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list. That’s foreign territory for most poetry.
Even if her poems didn’t receive much serious critical attention, they were “sassy,” William Sylvester wrote in the 2001 edition of Contemporary Poets. When “we hear her poetry, we listen to ourselves.”
Most of all, she was a survivor. The best of her writing reminded Yale scholar Harold Bloom of how “the early black Baptists in America spoke of ‘the little me within the big me,’ almost the last vestige of the spirituality they carried with them on the Middle Passage from Africa.”
Angelou’s voice, Bloom says, “speaks to something in the American ‘little me within the big me,’ white and black and whatever, that can survive dreadful experiences because the deepest self is beyond experience and cannot be violated.”
Her early childhood was grim. She was 3 years old when her parents divorced in Long Beach, Calif. Her father sent her and her 4-year-old brother alone by train to live with his mother in segregated Stamps, Ark., “a town almost that size,” as Angelou put it.
At 7, as she later wrote, she went to St. Louis to visit her mother, who was “too beautiful to have children.” Angelou described how she was first lovingly cuddled, then raped by her mother’s boyfriend, “a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.”
When the man was murdered by her uncles, Angelou felt responsible. She stopped talking to everyone but her brother for five years, even as she came to love stories and poems, reading everyone from Langston Hughes to Charles Dickens.
Finally, at 12, a teacher got her to speak again.
In 2008, she told USA Today, “I’m not a writer who teaches. I’m a teacher who writes. But I had to work at Wake Forest to know that.”
She described the joy she found in a classroom: “I see all those little faces and big eyes. Black and white. They look like sparrows in the nest. They look up, with their mouths wide open and I try to drop in everything I know.”
In 1954, she toured the world in the cast of Porgy and Bess. In 1960, she and comedian Godfrey Cambridge produced and starred in Cabaret Freedom, a benefit performance for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She later served as its Northern coordinator.
From 1963 to 1966, she taught music and dance at the University of Ghana. In 1977, she was nominated for an Emmy for her role in Roots, the TV miniseries.
She also wrote nine children’s books, 13 collections of poetry, four collections of essays, adapted I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for CBS in 1979, narrated the 1996 video, Elmo Saves Christmas, and complied a cookbook in 2004, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table.
She dedicated her 1993 essay collection, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, to Oprah Winfrey, who hosted grand birthday parties for Angelou. In 1997, Oprah’s Book Club chose Angelou’s The Heart of a Woman, the fourth of her memoirs.
In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, she circled back to the events that led her to begin her first book and dealt with the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965 and King in 1968. (She knew them both.)
Each of her books “took on a life of its own,” she said. But at the end, she wanted to avoid “writing about writing. Unless you’re Marcel Proust, that would be dense.”
She split her time between a restored 12-room townhouse in Harlem, and an 18-room house in Wake Forest, N.C.
Even after writing six books about her life, Angelou carefully guarded her privacy. After two divorces, she would say little about a man she never married, a South African freedom fighter she called “my great love.”
In the early ’60s, they lived together in Egypt, where she worked as a journalist. “He was the man I felt had taken the heart out of my body and worn it boldly on his shoulder like an epaulette, and I had adored him,” she wrote, but he goes unnamed in A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
Angelou said, “He’s dead, I’m sorry to say, but he has children and grandchildren” who deserve privacy. “I know I live in a world that wants to know everything.”
Her response to that world: “Make sure what you say is the truth, but don’t tell everything you know.”