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, died Wednesday, her son said. She was 86.
Angelou’s son, Guy B. Johnson, said the writer died at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she had been a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University 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 worked 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 1969 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 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 President George W. Bush, she read another poem, Amazing Peace, at the 2005 Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at the White House.
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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 the 1977 miniseries Roots, and never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.
Angelou developed connections over the years to South Florida’s rich literary community.
While in South Florida in 1994 on behalf of the Broward County Library’s new Family Learning Services program, she did an interview with then-Miami Herald book editor Margaria Fichtner. “If I can be remembered as a person who tried to be honest, intelligent, funny and irreverent enough not to take herself too seriously, I would think I’d lived well upon the Earth and known glory,” she told Fichtner.
Angelou was remembered in South Florida precisely the way she had wanted: Her life and work and genuine good humor made a lasting impression. An elementary school in Miami bears her name. She was one of the biggest names at the fledgling Miami Book Fair International in 1986. She even contributed the jaunty song Right, Said Fred to the Rock Bottom Remainders on the Kathi Kamen Goldmark-fueled CD Stranger Than Fiction, alongside tunes recorded by Dave Barry, Stephen King, Oscar Hijuelos and Norman Mailer.
And anyone who met her — or who even just read her work — treasures the memory.
“She used to come to the bookstore when she’d come to town, just for a visit,” says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books and co-founder of Miami Book Fair International. “I feel like we’ve lost a friend. She always loved being around books. When she would come into the store, she’d give staff and customers a bit of her time. She was very generous that way. She had a large spirit, and that spirit filled any room she was in.”
Novelist Edwidge Danticat met with Angelou several times and was once on a panel with her, paying tribute to another literary titan, Toni Morrison.
“She was so warm. You felt lit up in her presence,” Danticat says. “She was so regal from the stage, but from up close she was magnificent and warm. You felt like you could never utter her name, and yet she felt like an elder, a glowing and beautiful presence. When she addressed you, you felt the most seen you’d ever been seen.”
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the first book Danticat read in English, and its influence was deep, indeed: “I feel like everything else I’ve written was influenced by that. I was awestruck that someone had been so totally honest about their life. I think I felt lightened after I read that book, like ‘I can write anything.’ ”
Fellow inaugural poet Richard Blanco, who grew up in Miami and graduated from Florida International University, met Angelou only briefly — “I wanted to get the chance to speak with her about her experience and compare notes someday, and I lament that’s not going to happen now” — but says On the Pulse of Morning inspired his own inaugural work One Today.
“But she’s always been more than just a literary inspiration — she’s a spiritual inspiration,” he says. “Her eloquence and her storytelling, I’ve always admired. … Maya could say ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ and you’d be crying. … Her ability to connect with people was very powerful. One can write a good book; it’s another thing to connect to the soul, and she had that ability.”
Mia Leonin, a poet and memoirist on the creative-writing faculty at the University of Miami, says Angelou’s legacy reaches higher, beyond the words.
“She was so much about being able to write as a woman, about the experience of being a woman, with poems like Still I Rise. … She had an amazing sense of timing and delivery and rhythm, but the body of her work is about women and human rights. … I feel like she really paved the way for women, not only for women to be writing and publishing, but to write about the experience of being a woman.”
As for Angelou’s relevance to a younger generation, professor Eunice Hargett says her African-American literature class at Broward College had Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman on its schedule for study this week.
“It was the one work so far that every student had already read and was familiar with; I think that speaks volumes for her impact and the legacy of her work,” Hargett says. “For me, Maya Angelou will be remembered for many things, but the biggest is giving a voice to people who were previously voiceless in many ways. Through her poetry and the way she carried herself in life, she has made it easier for women of every shade and size to feel beautiful, to feel powerful and to be heard.”
Novelist Tananarive Due, the outgoing Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, where Angelou received an honorary doctorate in 1983, never met the author but feels the loss all the same.
The news “sent a shockwave through my social-media timeline,” she says. “So many very personal reminiscences, chance encounters — people can quote everything she said. They remember vividly every word she spoke.”
Due, daughter of civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due and civil rights attorney John Due, remembers watching on TV in Miami as Angelou read On the Pulse of Morning at the Clinton inauguration.
“It may be difficult to understand how much of an outsider I felt, how we often feel as people of color that we’re outside of the nation looking in, absent from so much of the rendering of history and photographs. And there she was, with this deep, beautiful voice. The words she spoke were so empowering. I had tears in my eyes.”
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, Ark., 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.
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, was married (to Enistasious Tosh Angelos, her first of three husbands) and then divorced. By her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller.
Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a book occasionally attacked for its content.
In a 1999 essay in Harper’s, author Francine Prose criticized Caged Bird as “manipulative” melodrama. Meanwhile, Angelou’s passages about her rape and teen pregnancy have made it a perennial on the American Library Association’s list of works that draw complaints from parents and educators.
“‘I thought that it was a mild book. There’s no profanity,” Angelou told The Associated Press. “It speaks about surviving, and it really doesn’t make ogres of many people. I was shocked to find there were people who really wanted it banned, and I still believe people who are against the book have never read the book.”
Miami Herald book editor Connie Ogle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.