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Poet and author Maya Angelou, who rose from poverty, segregation and violence to become a force on stage, screen and the printed page, has died. She was 86.
Angelou was found by her caretaker on Wednesday morning, Allen Joines, mayor of Winston-Salem, N.C., told the local Fox affiliate. Her son, Guy B. Johnson, said she died quietly in her home in the city before 8 a.m. local time. Wake Forest University, where she served in a lifetime post as Reynolds Professor of American Studies, also announced Angelou’s death in a news release.
“Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension,” Johnson said in a statement. “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
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The celebrated poet had recently canceled two scheduled appearances. She had been set to attend the 2014 MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon on May 30 but pulled out for “health reasons.” She also canceled an event in Fayetteville, Ark., because she was recovering from an “unexpected ailment” that landed her in the hospital, CBS News reported.
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 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.
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An actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and ’60s, she broke through as an author in 1970 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.
She remained close enough to the Clintons that in 2008 she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s candidacy over the ultimately successful run of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama. But a few days before Obama’s inauguration, she was clearly overjoyed. She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she would be watching it on television “somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know.”
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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 never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.
“The line of the dancer: If you watch [Mikhail] Baryshnikov and you see that line, that’s what the poet tries for. The poet tries for the line, the balance,” she told the Associated Press in 2008.
Angelou’s work in Hollywood spanned acting for film, television and the theater as well as directing and writing music.
She was pivotal to the John Singleton family drama Poetic Justice (1993), in which her poems were recited throughout the film by Justice, the lead character played by Janet Jackson. Angelou also appeared in the movie as May, one of three elderly sisters.
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She was nominated for a Tony Award for best featured actress in a play in 1973 for her role as the real-life Elizabeth Keckley, a confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln in the first lady’s final days, in Look Away. Directed by Rip Torn, the play closed after just one performance at the Playhouse Theatre.
Angelou also had a key role as a servant in How to Make an American Quilt (1995), starring Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn and Anne Bancroft; performed a soliloquy on a 1977 Richard Pryor NBC special; appeared in the fabled 1977 ABC Roots miniseries; showed up multiple times on Sesame Street; and had a part in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006).
She got her first notice onscreen playing an uncredited dancer in the 1959 film adaptation of Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.
Angelou directed the 1998 Miramax feature Down in the Delta, a drama about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in Mississippi. It featured Alfre Woodard, Esther Rolle and Wesley Snipes.
She co-wrote songs for the 1988 Roberta Flack albums Oasis, penned tunes that were heard in the films Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and Poitier’s For Love of Ivy (1968), and composed the score for Georgia, Georgia (1972).
She won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community.
Her very name as an adult was a reinvention. 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.
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“I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: ‘Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,'” she told the AP. “It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And ‘Deep River.’ Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about 7 and a half, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library. … And I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it.”
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. She spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou’s son Guy, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”
After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage (“Maya” was a childhood nickname), she toured in Porgy and Bess and Jean Genet‘s The Blacks and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.
“Every year, on that day, Coretta and I would send each other flowers,” Angelou said of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.
Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which might not have happened if James Baldwin hadn’t persuaded Angelou, still grieving over King’s death, to attend a party at Jules Feiffer‘s house. Feiffer was so taken by Angelou that he mentioned her to Random House editor Bob Loomis, who persuaded her to write a book.
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Angelou’s musical style was clear in a passage about boxing great Joe Louis‘ loss at the hands of German Max Schmeling:
“My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. … If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.”
Angelou’s memoir was occasionally attacked, for seemingly opposite reasons. 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 AP. “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.”
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Back in the 1960s, Malcolm X had written to Angelou and praised her for her ability to communicate so directly, with her “feet firmly rooted on the ground.” In 2002, she used this gift in an unexpected way when she launched a line of greeting cards with industry giant Hallmark. Angelou admitted she was cool to the idea at first. Then she went to Loomis, her editor at Random House.
“I said, ‘I’m thinking about doing something with Hallmark,'” she recalled. “And he said, ‘You’re the people’s poet. You don’t want to trivialize yourself.’ So I said ‘OK,’ and I hung up. And then I thought about it. And I thought, if I’m the people’s poet, then I ought to be in the people’s hands — and I hope in their hearts. So I thought, ‘Hmm, I’ll do it.'”
In North Carolina, she lived in an 18-room house and taught American Studies at Wake Forest. She also was a member of the board of trustees for Bennett College, a private school for black women in Greensboro, N.C. Angelou hosted a weekly satellite radio show for XM’s Oprah & Friends channel. She also owned and renovated a New York townhouse in Harlem, the inside decorated in spectacular primary colors.
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Active on the lecture circuit, she gave commencement speeches and addressed academic and corporate events across the country. Angelou received dozens of honorary degrees, and several elementary schools were named for her. As she approached her 80th birthday, she decided to study at the Missouri-based Unity church, which advocates healing through prayer.
“I was in Miami and my son (Johnson, her only child) was having his 10th operation on his spine. I felt really done in by the work I was doing, people who had expected things of me,” said Angelou, who then recalled a Unity church service she attended in Miami.
“The preacher came out — a young black man, mostly a white church — and he came out and said, ‘I have only one question to ask, and that is: “Why have you decided to limit God?” ‘ And I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been doing.’ So then he asked me to speak, and I got up and said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And I said it about 50 times, until the audience began saying it with me, ‘Thank you, THANK YOU!’ “
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