Maya Angelou: Saying goodbye to a literary giant

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

Maya Angelou — the trailblazing and award-winning poet and memoirist — has died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the age of 86. Her son Guy  B. Johnson, who survives her along with several grandchildren, said in a statement, “Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”

She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson (her nickname, “Maya,” was bestowed by her older brother) on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis. After her parents split when she was 3, Angelou was sent to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. It was when she returned to her mother and St. Louis a few years later that a series of traumas began: at the age of 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She went to her older brother, who alerted the rest of the family. The man was arrested and convicted, though he was murdered before serving any time in jail. Angelou assumed that he had been killed by her uncles, and the young girl didn’t speak for years afterwards. “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name,” she wrote in 1969′s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing.

That best-selling autobiography — nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 — examines the author’s early life and adolescence, ending after she gives birth to her son, Guy, at age 16. Lyrical and unflinching, it explores how the love of language can help overcome the most insurmountable obstacles, even sexual assault and racism. In 2011, Time magazine placed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in its list of the All Time Top 100 Nonfiction Books. Writer James Baldwin, a friend and mentor who encouraged Angelou to write Caged Bird, said of the book, “This testimony from a black sister marks the beginning of an era in the minds and hearts and lives of all black men and women.”

Angelou would go on to write six more volumes of memoir, including Gather Together in My Name (1974); Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976); The Heart of a Woman (1981); All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986); A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002); and Mom & Me & Mom (2013).

Her life gave her plenty of material: for example, she was the first black person to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. “I loved the uniforms,” she later told Oprah Winfrey. When Angelou first went out for the position, she wasn’t even given an application: “I sat there [at the office] for two weeks, every day. And then after two weeks, a man came out of his office and said, ‘Come here.’ And he asked, ‘Why do you want the job?’ I said, ‘I like the uniforms.’ And I said, ‘And I like people.’ And so I got the job.”

Angelou went on to work a series of jobs — fry cook, restaurant worker, car-paint-stripper at a mechanic’s shop – before trying her hand as a calypso dancer and singer. She married Tosh Angelos, a Greek electrician and aspiring musician, in 1951. The marriage ended in 1954; afterwards, she used a variation on her married name, Maya Angelou, while touring with a production of Porgy and Bess as a featured dancer. Next, she settled in New York, where she became an active member of the Harlem Writer’s Guild. (According to the New York Times, Angelou was “circumspect” about how many times she had been married; she reportedly wed at least three times.)

In 1960, she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped organized the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Souther Christian Leadership Conference, of which she she was later named Northern Coordinator. After a sojourn to Egypt in the early 60s — where she became the associate editor of The Arab Observer – Angelou moved to Ghana, working as an administrative assistant at the University of Ghana. When she returned to the States and New York City, she helped Malcolm X establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964.

In addition to her memoirs, Angelou was a prolific poet — she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for 1971′s Just Give me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie and wrote other volumes including Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975); And Still I Rise (1978); and Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983). In between she wrote the play Georgia, Georgia – garnering another Pulitzer nomination — earned a Tony nomination for her part in the 1973 Broadway production of Look Away, a play about Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, and appeared in the famed 1977 mini-series Roots. Other acting credits include the 1993 John Singleton film Poetic Justice, 1995′s How to Make an American Quilt, and Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion in 2006. She was nominated five times for a Grammy, winning three times for “Best Spoken Word Album” — in 1994 for On the Pulse of Morning; in 1996 for Phenomenal Woman; and in 2003 for A Song Flung Up to Heaven. 

In January 1993, she delivered the inaugural poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the swearing-in of President Bill Clinton, who awarded her a National Medal of Arts in 2000. “America has lost a national treasure, and Hillary and I a beloved friend,” Clinton said in a statement. In 2011, President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Though her longtime literary agent, Helen Brann, told ABC News that though Angelou had been in poor health for some time, she had not stopped writing. “She’d been very frail and had heart problems, but she was going strong, finishing a new book,” she said. “I spoke to her yesterday. She was fine, as she always was. Her spirit was indomitable.”

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