Maya Angelou: American Renaissance woman dies aged 86

Former strip club dancer became an artistic legend and friend of presidents

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 1:24am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 1:24am


Maya Angelou, a modern Renaissance woman who survived the harshest of childhoods to become a force on stage, screen, the printed page and the inaugural dais, has died. She was 86.

Her death was confirmed in a statement issued by Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had served as a professor of American Studies since 1982.

Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, Angelou defied all probability and category, becoming one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author and thriving in virtually every artistic medium.

The young single mother who performed at strip clubs to earn a living later wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history. The childhood rape victim wrote a million-selling memoir, befriended Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, and performed on world stages.

An actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s, she broke through as an author in 1970 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which became standard (and occasionally censored) reading, and was the first of a multi-part autobiography that continued through the decades.

In 1993, she was a sensation reading her cautiously hopeful On the Pulse of the Morning at former president Bill Clinton's first inauguration. For former president George W. Bush, she read another poem, Amazing Peace, at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House.

She remained close enough to the Clintons that in 2008 she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy over the ultimately successful run of the country's first black president, Barack Obama. But a few days before Obama's inauguration, she was clearly overjoyed. She said she would be watching it on television "somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know".

Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother. She was smart and fresh to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after being rude to a white store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn't speak at all: at age seven, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend and didn't speak for years. She learned by reading, and listening.

After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage, she worked as a coordinator for the civil rights group Southern Christian Leadership Council, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organise the Poor People's March in Memphis, Tennessee, where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou's 40th birthday.

Angelou was little known outside theatre until I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which she penned after being persuaded to write a book by Random House editor Bob Loomis.

"I thought that it was a mild book. There's no profanity," Angelou said of Caged Bird. "It speaks about surviving, and it really doesn't make ogres of many people. I was shocked to find there were people who really wanted it banned, and I still believe people who are against the book have never read the book."

Angelou appeared on several television programmes, notably the 1977 mini-series Roots. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her appearance in the play Look Away and she directed the film Down in the Delta, about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta.

She won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for contributions to the literary community.

Associated Press