Dr. Maya Angelou, who kicked down the door for many African-American and other female artists, passed away Wednesday morning. She was 86.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, but raised off and on in Stamps, Arkansas, by her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, as well as in various cities in the Midwest and on the West Coast, nothing in Maya Angelou’s early life or the times in which she lived hinted at the global stature she would one day attain.
A poet, memoirist, dancer, singer, actress, playwright, producer, director, teacher, civil rights activist and women’s rights advocate, there were no limits to her outlets for creative expression or her capacity to champion justice and equality. Her life was a testament to the power of possibility as well as an affirmation of courage and daring.
The journey she memorialized in her six autobiographical books, including the pivotal I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970, by most accounts, during a time when an avalanche of previously unheard black female voices was unleashed, began when her parents divorced when she was just three. Traveling from California to Arkansas unaccompanied by an adult with her slightly older brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., the two arrived to their grandmother safely and entered into a world where “Momma,” as they called her, had the only black-owned store in the community, which served as a de facto community center.
Under Momma’s guidance and the watchful eye of her crippled son, Uncle Willie, Angelou was exposed to the best of African-American cultural traditions even against the backdrop of the horrors and limitations of the Jim Crow South. Relocation to Chicago to live with their mother Vivian Baxter was traumatic for Angelou, who was raped by Mr. Freeman, her mother’s boyfriend. Telling only Bailey, who informed the family of the violation, Angelou refused to speak for five years once Mr. Freeman was found beaten to death. Believing that her voice had resulted in his demise, she vowed not to use it again.
Back in Stamps, Momma never pressured her to speak but believed that she would one day use her voice powerfully. Encouraged by her teacher, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou encountered and cherished the words of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, among others, and even began writing down her own.
Pushed by Mrs. Flowers, who assured Angelou that she would never appreciate the full force of those words unless she spoke them, Angelou did eventually speak again. At age 13, she left Stamps with Bailey to join their mother in the Oakland/San Francisco area, but Stamps, as she wrote often, served as the foundation from which she touched the world.
Access to greater educational resources and increased opportunities helped Angelou, who also gained a loving stepfather, excel. Despite studying dance and drama, she dropped out of San Francisco’s Labor School to become San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor. Shortly thereafter, she returned to high school, graduating from Mission High School, even though she was eight months pregnant by a boy she did not love and had only slept with once. However, she always insisted that her son and only child, Clyde “Guy” Johnson, was a blessing.
In 1985, she told Essence, “The greatest gift I ever received was my son. . . .When he was four . . . I taught him to read. But then he’d ask questions and I didn’t have the answers, so I started my lifelong affair with libraries. . . .I’ve learned an awful lot because of him.”
Still life was not easy as a young, single, unwed mother. Angelou did whatever she could to survive, working multiple jobs as a cook, waitress, even briefly as a madam in a brothel, to support her son and herself. She married her first husband, Greek sailor Tosh Angelos, in 1949, but the union only lasted three years.
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His name, however, came in handy. Working as a Calypso dancer at the San Francisco club The Purple Onion, Angelou, performing as Marguerite Johnson or Rita at the time, was told she needed a more theatrical stage name. By combining “Maya,” the name her stuttering brother Bailey had given her when they were children, and a variation of her ex-husband’s last name, she became “Maya Angelou.”
When Alvin Ailey moved to San Francisco in 1951, the two artists connected and even danced as the duo “Al and Rita.” From 1954 to 1955, she traveled throughout Europe and Africa with Porgy and Bess, all the while battling her guilt over repeating history by leaving her son with his grandmother. Calypso Lady, her first album, was recorded in 1957 and, in 1958, she moved to New York with her son.
New York presented a world of opportunities. Angelou joined the legendary Harlem Writers Guild, where she befriended James Baldwin and others. Turning her talents to social causes, she, along with Godfrey Cambridge, penned the revue Cabaret for Freedom, in which she performed, to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Angelou also appeared in the important off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, also starring Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett, Jr.
With her second husband, South African activist Vuzumzi Make, Angelou and Guy relocated to Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1960s. Sadly, the union didn’t survive, but Angelou continued to thrive, serving as associate editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer before moving to Ghana, where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, contributed to the Ghanaian Times and worked as the feature editor for The African Review.
It was in Ghana that Angelou met Malcolm X and agreed to return to the United States in 1964 to help build his Organization of Afro-American Unity, but he was assassinated shortly after her arrival, and the organization was dissolved. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her to serve as SCLC’s Northern Coordinator soon thereafter. When he was assassinated on her birthday, Angelou was shocked and devastated, sending Coretta Scott King flowers every year until her death in 2006, rarely celebrating her birthday on its actual day.
Encouraged by Baldwin, Angelou began writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Upon publication, it became an instant classic, catapulting Angelou to international stardom and earning her a National Book Award nomination, not to mention a made-for-television movie in 1979. Poetry volumes followed, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie (1971), which contained her classic poem “Still I Rise,” an ode to African-American resiliency in spite of oppression.
Her 1978 book of poetry, And Still I Rise, yielded “Phenomenal Woman,” which struck a chord with black women especially, helping them affirm their unique inner beauty. It became an unofficial anthem, making its way to stages everywhere, performed frequently by black women and girls.
Angelou’s popularity mushroomed even more when she delivered “On the Pulse of Morning” during the 1993 presidential inauguration of William (Bill) Jefferson Clinton, becoming the first female poet to recite during a presidential inauguration and only the second poet (with Robert Frost being the first at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration) ever to do so. That January, Angelou, according to her publisher, sold more books than in the previous year combined. An audio recording of the poem won a Grammy.
Long championed by Oprah Winfrey, who shared her love and devotion to Angelou as a mentor, mother-figure, sister and friend early on with her television audiences, often explaining how Angelou’s works had touched her impoverished life and enriched her soul, Angelou also enjoyed great critical acclaim. Lauded for her ability to paint detailed portraits of identity and family within the context of virulent racism, not to mention her disclosure of sexual abuse, Angelou’s works were added to educational curricula across the country, even amid protest.
Her 1972 screenplay Georgia, Georgia, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize,was the first original script by a black woman to be produced. She received a Tony nomination for her role in the 1973 Broadway play Look Away. In 2000, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. Additionally, she won three Grammys for her audio recordings. In all, she received over 30 honorary degrees, granting her the Dr. Maya Angelou title.
As an actress, Angelou played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the iconic mini-series version of Alex Haley’s Roots and also appeared in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, where Janet Jackson recited her poetry, and in Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion with Cicely Tyson. In 1998, she directed Down in the Delta, starring an ailing Esther Rolle, who had played her grandmother in the television film version of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Returning to the South in 1981, Angelou settled in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She launched her own line of greeting cards, featuring her words, in 2002 with Hallmark and began hosting her own weekly radio show for XM Satellite Radio’s Oprah & Friends channel. In 2007, she became the first African-American woman and first living poet to be featured in the Poetry for Young People series. Throughout her career, she published over 30 books, including six autobiographies, six children’s books, two cookbooks, nearly ten volumes of poetry and at least five books of essays. Libraries, schools and other public institutions bear her name.
Always one to beat to her own drum, Angelou rallied behind Hillary Rodham Clinton in the historic 2008 election, despite close friend Oprah’s unwavering support for Barack Obama and the fact that Obama, like her, was black.
A global renaissance woman indeed, Maya Angelou, who spoke many languages, was nurtured in Stamps, Arkansas, but loved all over the world. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,” she was frequently quoted as saying, “but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And Maya Angelou made most people feel proud to be in their own skin, regardless of race, gender or class.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha