Max Avalon was saddened to hear about the death of Maya Angelou, revered author and poet, at 86 years of age. She had been in declining health for some time, and passed away in her North Carolina home on the morning of May 28, 2014. The cause of death is not immediately known.
Angelou is perhaps best known for her 1969 autobiography I know why the Caged Bird Sings, and for reciting her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming only the second poet to read at an American president’s inauguration.
Angelou, nicknamed Maya by her brother, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928. As a child, she moved between St. Louis and segregated Stamps, Arkansas. At the age of seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was subsequently tried and jailed for only a day. Following his release, he was killed, and she refused to speak for the next five years, believing the power of her voice was what killed him.
After having moved to the Bay Area and shortly after high school, Angelou gave birth to a son, and she shuffled through various occupations to raise her child as a single mother. In 1951, despite the stigma of interracial marriages, she married Tosh Angelos, from whom she derived the latter portion of her pen name. Their marriage ended in 1954, and, for the next ten years, Angelou toured Europe as a singer and dancer, and later traveled to Cairo and Accra, Ghana, where she worked as a freelance writer.
Angelou befriended Malcom X during his trips to Ghana in the 1960’s, and in 1965, shortly before his assassination, he invited her to return to the United States and help him create a new civil rights organization. Angelou was lost and adrift until early 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—also shortly before his assassination, on her fortieth birthday—asked her to organize a civil rights march.
Later that year, Angelou was challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis to write an autobiography that could be considered a piece of literature. She released I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 to international acclaim. In it, Angelou flagrantly depicts growing up in the Jim Crow South and is chiefly concerned with overcoming long-lasting, pervasive trauma and resisting racial oppression. In 1971 she published her first book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was nominated for a Pulitzer.
Angelou became an able screenplay writer, composer, and writer of short stories, essays, poetry, TV documentaries, and numerous autobiographies. She was also a notable actor, appearing in both plays and television, and as visiting professor at various universities, including the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2010.
Angelou leaves behind a legacy of unapologetic, nonvindictive growth out of turmoil. She managed to find her voice through the personal pain of her childhood and the imperative struggle for African American civil rights. Angelou’s voice, never limited to the page, is a resounding testimony to the raising of the self over the figurative, though very real cage of oppression.
She is survived by her son, Guy Johnson.