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Remembering a phenomenal woman, Maya Angelou

HILLEL ITALIE | 5/28/2014, 5:01 p.m.
Maya Angelou, a modern Renaissance woman who survived the harshest of childhoods to become a force on stage, screen, the ...
Maya Angelou answers questions at her portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on April 5 in Washington, DC. Paul Morigi

NEW YORK (AP) – 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 victim of rape wrote a million-selling memoir, befriended Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and performed on stages around the world.

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 multipart 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. Her confident performance openly delighted Clinton and made the poem a best seller, if not a critical favorite. 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 told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she would be watching it on television “somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know.”

She was a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, whom she befriended when Winfrey was still a local television reporter, and often appeared on her friend’s talk show program. She mastered several languages and published not just poetry, but advice books, cookbooks and children’s stories. She wrote music, plays and screenplays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in Roots, and never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.

“The line of the dancer: If you watch [Mikhail] Baryshnikov and you see that line, that’s what the poet tries for. The poet tries for the line, the balance,” she said in an 2008 interview, shortly before her birthday.

Her very name as an adult was a reinvention. 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 sassing a White store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn’t speak at all: At age 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t speak for years. She learned by reading, and listening.