Maya Angelou was a diva of American culture: an actress, singer, dancer and film director as well as an essayist and Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet whose mainstream magnetism led her to write verses for Hallmark and recite one of her poems at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
Her most celebrated achievement, however, was the stories she told about herself in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969), the first in a series of bestselling 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 exposed the ugliness as well as the beauty in a prodigiously inventive life.
A staple of high school and college reading lists, the book made Angelou a frequent target of parents and others concerned about its graphic descriptions of racism and sexual abuse. But it established her as a clear-eyed interpreter of the black experience with a message of hope and transcendence that resonated with a vast, multiracial audience.
“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, who wrote more than 35 books over five decades, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she had a lifetime appointment at Wake Forest University. Her death at 86 was announced by her son, Guy B. Johnson. He did not give a cause, but Angelou had a number of health problems in recent years.
Noting that she was the reason his sister was named Maya, President Obama said in a statement Wednesday that Angelou filled many roles over a “remarkable” life. “But above all,” he said, “she was a storyteller – and her greatest stories were true.”
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis but moved to Long Beach, California, 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, Arkansas, a “musty little town” that was so segregated, Angelou wrote, that “most black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like.”
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, a professional gambler and merchant seaman in St. Louis. Baxter’s boyfriend lived with them. Angelou identified him as Mr. Freeman, 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 William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Paul Laurence 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.
At 16, after a clumsy sexual encounter with a neighborhood boy, she became pregnant and gave birth to her 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 and fry cook in hamburger joints.” 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. 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, 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 Jr.
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.
She returned to the United States in 1964 and wrote, produced and directed “Black, Blues, Black,” a 10-part public television series on African-American culture that aired in 1968.
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 1980s by such authors as Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara.
“Caged Bird” remains the most highly regarded of Angelou’s 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), “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002) and “Mom & Me & Mom” (2013).
In later years, Angelou became 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.
In 2011, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama.
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.