July 24, 2014
‘Phenomenal woman’ Maya Angelou dies
American author and poet Maya Angelou, whose groundbreaking memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings earned her international acclaim with an unflinching account of rape and racism in the segregated South, died yesterday at age 86. The prolific African-American writer, known for her lyrical prose and regal speaking voice, died quietly at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Angelou’s family said in a statement.
Angelou defied all probability and category, becoming one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author and thriving in 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.
From her desperate early years, Angelou gradually moved into nightclub dancing and from there began a career in the arts that spanned more than 60 years. She sang cabaret and calypso, danced with Alvin Ailey, acted on Broadway, directed for film and television and wrote more than 30 books, including poetry, essays and, responding to the public’s appetite for her life story, six autobiographies.
She won three Grammy Awards for spoken-word recordings of her poetry and prose and was invited by then president-elect Bill Clinton to read an original poem at his first inauguration in 1993, making her only the second poet in history, after Robert Frost, to be honoured so. Her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, spoke of a hope that the country’s diverse people would find new unity after chapters in American history of oppression and division: “Lift up your eyes upon/The day breaking for you,” she said as the nation watched. “Give birth again/To the dream.”
An icon of struggle
It was her story of personal transformation in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that launched Angelou’s career and brought her wide recognition as a symbol of strength overcoming struggle. The idea for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings arose during conversations with friends, including James Baldwin, whom she’d met in Paris. Angelou initially resisted the suggestion that she write her story, giving in only after an editor goaded her by suggesting that writing autobiography as literature was too difficult for anyone to do well.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings focused on growing up in her grandmother’s care in segregated Stamps, Arkansas, and on her rape by her mother’s boyfriend at age seven, “a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.” After she spoke her attacker’s name, he was found kicked to death in a lot behind a slaughterhouse. Convinced that her voice had the power to kill, she fell nearly silent for nearly five years. She spoke only to her beloved older brother, Bailey.
“I had to stop talking,” she wrote. “I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones, and I simply stood still — in the midst of a riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten up all the sounds.”
The book, which came at the leading edge of a renaissance in literature by black female writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, traces the young Angelou’s effort to recover her voice and a sense of control over her body and her life. Enduringly popular, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been translated into 17 languages, sold more than one million copies and still appears on high school and college reading lists.
Tributes pour in for beloved author
Literary and entertainment figures, politicians and fans mourned her passing yesterday.
In 2011, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour. In a statement yesterday, Obama said his sister, Maya, was named for the author, whom he called “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.”
“A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking — but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves,” Obama said.
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who frequently threw lavish birthday parties for Angelou and considered her a mentor, said she would remember her friend most for how she lived her life. “She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace,” Winfrey said.
Herald with Washington Post, AP, Reuters