Maya Angelou reads a poem during a ceremony to present Desmond Tutu the William J Fulbright Prize in Washington in 2008. (AFP)
May 28: Maya Angelou, the memoirist and poet whose landmark book of 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — which describes in lyrical, unsparing prose her childhood in the Jim Crow South — was among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman to reach a wide general readership, died today in her home.
She was 86 and lived in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Her death was confirmed by her literary agent, Helen Brann. No immediate cause had been determined, but Brann said Angelou had been in frail health for some time and had had heart problems.
As well known as she was for her memoirs, which filled six volumes, Angelou very likely received her widest exposure on a chilly January day in 1993, when she delivered the inaugural poem, On the Pulse of Morning, at the swearing-in of Bill Clinton, who, like Angelou, had grown up poor in rural Arkansas.
Long before, as she recounted in Caged Bird and the sequels, she had already been a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, single mother, magazine editor in Cairo, administrative assistant in Ghana, official of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and friend or associate of some of the most eminent black Americans of the mid-20th century, including James Baldwin, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Afterward (her six-volume memoir takes her only to the age of 40), Angelou was a Tony-nominated stage actress; college professor (she was for many years the Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem); ubiquitous presence on the lecture circuit; frequent guest on television shows, from Oprah to Sesame Street; and subject of a string of scholarly studies.
In February 2011, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour.
Throughout her writing, Angelou explored the concepts of personal identity and resilience through the multifaceted lens of race, sex, family, community and the collective past. Her work offered a clear-eyed examination of the ways in which the forces of racism and sexism played out at the level of the individual.
“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,” Angelou wrote in Caged Bird.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published when Angelou was in her early 40s, spans only her first 17 years. But what powerfully formative years they were.
Marguerite Ann Johnson was born in St. Louis on April 4, 1928. (For years after King’s assassination, on April 4, 1968, she did not celebrate her birthday).
After her parents’ marriage ended, three-year-old Maya was sent with her four-year-old brother, Bailey, to live with their father’s mother in the tiny town of Stamps, Ark.
The children returned periodically to St. Louis to live with their mother. On one such occasion, when Maya was 7 or 8 , she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother, who alerted the family, and the man was convicted. Before he could begin serving his sentence, he was murdered — probably, Angelou wrote, by her uncles.
Believing that her words had brought about the death, Maya did not speak for the next five years.
As a teenager, now living with her mother in San Francisco, she studied dance and drama at the California Labor School and became the first black woman to work as a streetcar conductor there. At 16, after a casual liaison with a neighbourhood youth, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. There the first book ends.
Angelou later settled in New York.
She released an album of songs, Miss Calypso, in 1957.
But she remained best known for her memoirs.