Obit of the Day: Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, one of the great voices in American writing, passed away on May 28, 2014 at the age of 86. A Renaissance woman, Ms. Angelou was a dancer, poet, memoirist, actor, and director. She worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and James Baldwin. She served on presidential commissions for both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. President Bill Clinton invited her to deliver a poem (“On the Pulse of Morning”) at his first inaugural. And in 2010 she received the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
Born in Missouri on April 4, 1928, Ms. Angelou’s early life was marked by trauma that she detailed in her National Book Award-nominated memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was only seven years old. Emotionally and physically scarred, she felt guilt when her uncles murdered her abuser, believing she was responsible for his death. She would not utter a word for more than five years.
After choosing to speak again (precipitated by a relationship with a mentor named Mrs. Flowers), Ms. Angelou began to flourish academically and artistically. Attending high school in San Francisco she began taking classes in dance and drama. (She also worked, for a time, as the first black woman to drive a cable car.) By the early 1950’s, with two young sons, she moved to New York where she first broke into entertainment, beginning as a nightclub singer. She also continued her studies in dance working with legendary choreographers Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham. She also earned a role in the national touring company of Porgy and Bess (1957-1958)
New York also had an impact on her literary career. It was there that she met James Baldwin and joined the Harlem Writers Guild. It was also around the same time she first heard a young preacher from Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr., speak on civil rights.
In 1962 she left the U.S. to live in Egypt and serve as the editor for a weekly English language paper. Two years later she moved to Ghana where she met with Malcolm X while he was touring the country. Following the meeting Ms. Angelou returned to the U.S. to work with Mr. X on the creation of the Organization of African American Unity. (Unfortunately the organization was never fully realized after Mr. X’s assassination in February 1965.)
She decided to re-direct her efforts by working with Dr. King and was named Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This relationship also ended in tragedy when Dr. King was assassinated on Ms. Angelou’s birthday in 1968.
Just a year later Ms. Angelou gained national acclaim and a National Book Award nomination after the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - the first of six memoirs. Encouraged in her work by Mr. Baldwin, Caged Bird, is still popular on high school reading lists 45 years after publication.
Ms. Angelou was now in high demand and her output continued to receive the highest accolades. Her first book of published poetry, Just Give Me a Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1972) earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination. That same year her screenplay for the film Georgia, Georgia became the first by a black woman to be produced. In 1973, she earned a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway production Look Away. She also a supporting role in the 1977 miniseries Roots.
During all this she continued to publish her life story, publishing five books following Caged Bird: Gather Together in My Name (1974), Swingin’, Singin’, and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). (The last earned Ms. Angelou her third Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album, she earned two others in 1993 and 1995.)
The body of Ms. Angelou’s written was so vast, including additional poetry and children’s books, that in 2013 the National Book Foundation awarded her the Literarian Award for her contributions to literature.
Sources: MayaAngelou.com, The Poetry Foundation, IMDB.com, Wikipedia, Grammy.com
(Image of Ms. Angelou is courtesy of MayaAngelou.com)