Maya Angelou: Cultural Pioneer

Posted on Wednesday, June 4, 2014 at 8:51 am

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Maya Angelou’s story awed millions. A childhood victim of rape, she broke through silence and shame to tell her tale in one of the most widely read memoirs of the 20th century. A black woman born into poverty and segregation, she recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history.

“I’m not modest,” she told The Associated Press in 2013. “I have no modesty. Modesty is a learned behavior. But I do pray for humility, because humility comes from the inside out.”

Angelou, a Renaissance woman and cultural pioneer, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86.

“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace,” said her son, Guy B. Johnson.

Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, she was unforgettable whether encountered in person, through sound or the printed word. She was an actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s and made a brave and sensational debut as an author in 1969 with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.

The world was watching in 1993 when she read her cautiously hopeful “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. Her confident performance openly delighted Clinton and made publishing history by making a poem a best-seller. For President George W. Bush, she read another poem, “Amazing Peace,” at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House. Presidents honored her in return with a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. In 2013, she received an honorary National Book Award.

Her very name 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 talk for years. She learned by reading, and listening.

“I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: ‘Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,’” she told the AP. “It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And ‘Deep River.’ Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about 7 1/2, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library. … And I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it.”

At age 9, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel, got married and then divorced. But by her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She also spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou’s son, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”

After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage (“Maya” was a childhood nickname, “Angelou” a variation of her husband’s name), she toured in “Porgy and Bess” and Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Nelson Mandela, a longtime friend.

Angelou appeared on several TV programs, notably the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries “Roots.” She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her appearance in the play “Look Away.” 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 her contributions to the literary community.

She had been a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University since 1982. She was also a member of the board of trustees for Bennett College, a private school for black women in Greensboro. Angelou hosted a weekly satellite radio show for XM’s “Oprah & Friends” channel.

She remained so close 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.”

Active on the lecture circuit, she gave commencement speeches and addressed academic and corporate events across the country. Angelou received dozens of honorary degrees, and several elementary schools were named for her.

Angelou passed away May 28 at the age of 86.

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