Poet Maya Angelou dies at age 86

1401284312000-angelou-00001Poet 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.”

—  Steve Ramos

BTD beneficiary applications begin Feb. 1

30TH ANNIVERSARY | Nan Arnold and Ron Guillard chaired the 2010 Black Tie Dinner that distributed more than $1 million to 20 beneficiaries.

Organizers promise more announcements are coming soon about 30th annual dinner

From Staff Reports

Officials with Black Tie Dinner this week announced that the organization will begin accepting applications Feb. 1 from potential beneficiaries of the 30th annual event, set for Nov. 12 at Sheraton Dallas hotel.

Each year, money raised by the dinner is divided between the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and local beneficiary organizations. As many as 20 local beneficiaries are chosen each year.

Beneficiary applications will be available on the BTD website on Feb. 1, and the deadline for submitting applications is. Feb. 25.

The names of those organizations chosen as beneficiaries will be announced March 30.

Eligible groups must have tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status with the IRS and must demonstrate service to the LGBT community, using a majority of their funds for direct programs and services.

Officials also said this week that other announcements about plans for the 30th annual Black Tie Dinner can be expected in the next week.

The dinner began in 1982 when organizers donated about $6,000 to HRCF and has grown into the largest LGBT fundraising dinner of its kind in the country. More than $15 million has been distributed to beneficiaries since then.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin was the headliner of the 2010 Black Tie Dinner. Others that have appeared include Gov. Ann Richards, Maya Angelou, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Gavin Newsom.

The dinner committee honors individuals and corporations that have made contributions to the fight for LGBT rights both locally and nationally. Rev. Carol West and singer Chely Wright were 2010 recipients. Others have included Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Shepard and Bishop Gene Robinson.

Chris Kouvelis and Nan Arnold are this year’s Black Tie Dinner chairs.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 28, 2011.

—  John Wright

Resounding success

For the third year, Tim Seelig’s choral group sings to feed a real need

Resounding Harmony
SUPPER CLUB | Tim Seelig, center, with members of Resounding Harmony, wants his concert to feed North Texans.

Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St.
Nov. 10. 8 p.m. $30–$50.


Timothy Seelig gets angry when he considers that during the season of Thanksgiving, there are still thousands of North Texans who go hungry. Which is why, for the third year in a row, the new season of his Resounding Harmony choral group begins with a fundraiser for the North Texas Food Bank.

“Resounding Harmony is an amazing blend of men [and] women, ages 13 to 77, from absolutely every walk of life, brought together by the music and the larger mission of making a difference in our community,” explains Seelig, the founding artistic director for the chorus.

Now more than 200 voices strong, Resounding Harmony had its genesis in a smaller mixed choral group Seelig helped put together for the March 2008 Voices of Peace celebration to honor Maya Angelou. That group caught the eye of Gregg Smith, a pastor at the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, who approached Seelig and Hope for Peace & Justice about creating another chorus to help raise money and collect food for the needy. Not long afterwards, Resounding Harmony and its “musical philanthropic mission” were born.

“The North Texas Food Bank shared with us that they had just launched a three-year initiative and we immediately signed on to partner with them,” Seelig says.

The first year, Resounding Harmony raised enough to provide the NTFB with the means to offer 65,000 meals to North Texans unable to feed themselves. Last year, the chorus took an even more ambitious aim: to help provide 100,000 meals — a goal it surpassed by 10,000 meals. This year, Seelig once again wants to exceed the 100,000 mark. The concert takes place Nov. 10 at the Meyerson Symphony Center

“We are working very hard to add to the concert proceeds, income from the virtual food drive, actual food drives, Dinner in Destin Raffle, the Recyclable Grocery Bags and the Fabulous Table Auction,” Seelig says.

While the concert is intended to call attention to the reality of hunger in North Texas, Seelig promises that the show itself will be “[a] perfect balance of humor and seriousness.”

Some songs on the program, like “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise” and “Jalapeno Chorus”(a distinctly Southwestern play on Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”) are laugh-out-loud funny. Others, like the poignant “Famine Song” and the rousing “Love Can Build a Bridge,” are intended to stir emotions.

Additional concert highlights include Russ Rieger playing the Lay Family Concert Organ and pianist Antoine Spencer performing a medley of Leonard Bernstein pieces.

“Every person attending will enter these holidays with beautiful music in their ears and in their hearts,” Seelig says.

In the three years of its existence, Resounding Harmony has also sung on behalf of other organizations, such as the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, Lowe Elementary and The Samaritan Inn. With its June 2010 Carnegie Hall “Sing for Cure” performance for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, it has also quickly established itself as a distinguished member of the Dallas arts community

“The philosophy is to use our music as a philanthropic vehicle to raise money and awareness,” explains Seelig. “It is truly an effort to use music as a means to a greater end, rather than an end in and of itself.”

— M.M. Adjarian

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Don’t forget your gift and card for Powerbottom Appreciation Day on Saturday

So, what exactly do you get your favorite powerbottom? The gift ideas here don’t make much sense, but that Wiki page does give you the back story on the annual holiday. “Power Bottom Appreciation Day is an annual holiday that recognizes Power Bottoms, as well as the positive contributions that they make to society. According to Durban Bud, it is celebrated on the 30th of October, which, ironically, is also National Candy Corn Day.” Although, wouldn’t that be more of a coincidence? Bud cites on his 2006 blog post Martha Stewart hints for PBAD after the jump, but I think he jests:

According to a Martha Stewart magazine article, we’re supposed to treat Power Bottoms with the utmost respect on this day by gifting them with flowers (preferably rosebuds), fancy non-spicy dinners, easily digestible chocolates (with NO almonds) and, of course, constant verbal praise followed by light fanny pats.

If you have the money and want to go all out, Martha suggests purchasing loose diamonds and then wrapping them in a handmade gift box with a copy of Maya Angelou’s award-winning poem, “My Precious Power Bottom, I’m So Thankful I Got ‘Im.”

Because I saw it first on Wikipedia, I wasn’t sure if there was any truth to it. A Google search proved me wrong. There is even an underwhelming website marking the day. Although there is nothing overly official out there on the subject, the word is well out on what I figure is a top’s favorite holiday. And, if you see anyone donning a pink rose, or officially a rosebud, wish them a happy PBAD.

As for what to get your special PB? Well, the obvious “toy” would be a little too cliche and phallic items from the produce aisle aren’t overly special. But since it’s also Halloween, how about a nice, giant gummy worm? And some imagination.

And it’s ribbed.

—  Rich Lopez