Maya Angelou Dies Aged 86
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”
The death of Maya Angelou today doesn’t bring an end to the life of one of America’s most famous, and beloved, African-American writers and civil rights activists. It simply engages a wider audience to her Pulitzer Award winning poetry and her amazing accomplishments over her 86 years.
Born in 1928, Marguerite Annie Johnson had a tumultuous childhood especially after her parents separated when she was very young. At age seven she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend who was then killed by one of Maya’s uncles. Due to the trauma, Maya stopped talking and spent years as a mute.
As an African-American born in the South amidst deep racism, Angelou learnt firsthand about prejudice and discrimination. Winning a scholarship to study dance and acting in San Francisco during WW2, Angelou became the first black female to be a cable car conductor. However an unplanned pregnancy when she was juts 16 years old led to the birth of her son, Guy, and a series of jobs to support herself and her son.
Marrying Anastasios Angelou in 1952 saw Marguerite blend her childhood nickname to be known as Maya Angelou. Her performing career started to take off in the mid 1950’s with a lead role in Porgy and Bess with a touring company. Her first album, Miss Calypso, was released in 1957 after Maya appeared in the off-broadway production of Calypso Heat Wave.
Angelou’s civil activism had started and she organised a music review entitled Cabaret for Freedom to raise support for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was also a member of the Harlem Writer’s Guild.
Her acting continued in the early 60’s appearing alongside other soon-to-be-great African-American actors including James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson and Lou Gossett Jnr. Despite receiving strong reviews, Angelou moved more toward writing and lived abroad in Egypt and Ghana for much of the 1960’s. Angelou worked as an editor and freelance writer also holding a position at the University of Ghana for some of her time there.
After returning the States, and with encouragement from friends, Maya wrote her first book about her life experiences. In 1969 her memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ became a runaway best-seller creating history as a first for an African-American author. But her ‘firsts’ didn’t end there. In 1972 her drama ‘Georgia Georgia’ became the first screenplay written by an African-American to be produced. Angelou went on to earn a Tony nomination for her role in the play ‘look Away’ and an Emmy nomination for her role in the ground-breaking TV series ‘Roots’ in 1977.
More awards and best-sellers (including being on the New York Times best-seller list for a record breaking two years) followed including several books of poetry and several autobiographies. Her most famous poem is ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ which she wrote and recited for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Angelou later won a Grammy Award for the audio version of the poem in the category ‘Best Spoken Word Album’. She even published cookbooks including ‘Great Food, All Day Long’ in 2010.
Tragedy was also never far from Maya’s life with her close friend, Dr Martin Luther King, being assassinated on her birthday of April 4. For many years she didn’t celebrate her own birthday and sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta, for 30 years until her death in 2006. Oprah Winfrey was another close friend whereby Maya often appeared on Oprah’s television show. Oprah organised many birthday celebration for Angelou’s including a week-long cruise in 1998 to celebrate her 70th birthday.
The much lauded and globally loved Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on May 28th. Her mourning has been played out over social media with celebrities and others tweeting their favourite quotes. President Barack Obama said she was “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman”.