A legend has been silenced. The world mourns today from poet and activist Maya Angelou, who died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Wednesday. She was 86.
She was a poet, novelist, professor, singer, dancer and vocal activist. President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom.
Perhaps the most familiar of her works was “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1969. It was the first in a series of autobiographical books.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the first of Angelou’s six autobiographies. It is widely taught in schools, though it has faced controversy over its portrayal of race, sexual abuse and violence. Angelou’s use of fiction-writing techniques like dialogue and plot in her autobiographies was innovative for its time and helped, in part, to complicate the genre’s relationship with truth and memory. Though her books are episodic and tightly-crafted, the events seldom follow a strict chronology and are arranged to emphasize themes.
Most critics have judged Angelou’s subsequent autobiographies in light of her first, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains the most highly praised. Other volumes include Gather Together in My Name (1974), which begins when Angelou is seventeen and a new mother; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas, an account of her tour in Europe and Africa with Porgy and Bess; The Heart of a Woman (1981), a description of Angelou’s acting and writing career in New York and her work for the civil rights movement; and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), which recounts Angelou’s travels in West Africa and her decision to return, without her son, to America.
It took Angelou 15 years to write the final volume of her autobiography, A Song Flung up to Heaven (2002). The book covers four years, from the time Angelou returned from Ghana in 1964 through the moment when she sat down at her mother’s table and began to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1968.
During the early 1990s, Angelou wrote several books for children, including Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (1993), which also featured the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat; My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (1994), and Kofi and His Magic(1996), both collaborations with the photographer Margaret Courtney-Clark. Angelou’s poetry collections include The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou(1994) and Phenomenal Woman (1995), a collection of four poems that takes its title from a poem which originally appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1978. The poem’s narrator describes the physical and spiritual characteristics and qualities that make her attractive.
Angelou has published multiple collections of essays. Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993) contains declarations, complaints, memories, opinions, and advice on subjects ranging from faith to jealousy. Genevieve Stuttaford, writing in Publishers Weekly, described the essays as “quietly inspirational pieces.” Anne Whitehouse of theNew York Times Book Review observed that the book would “appeal to readers in search of clear messages with easily digested meanings.” Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) is the sister volume, a book of “candid and lovingly crafted homilies” to “sensuality, beauty, and black women” said Donna Seaman in Booklist. Letter to my Daughter was published in 2008.
Angelou’s poetry often benefits from her performance of it: Angelou usually recites her poems before spellbound crowds. Indeed, Angelou’s poetry can also be traced to African-American oral traditions like slave and work songs, especially in her use of personal narrative and emphasis on individual responses to hardship, oppression and loss. In addition to examining individual experience, Angelou’s poems often respond to matters like race and sex on a larger social and psychological scale.
The self-taught Angelou holds 30 honorary degrees and taught American Studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. She spoke six languages.
Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis and grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.
The famous poet got into writing after a childhood rape that silenced her for years.
She was Hollywood’s first female black director but is most famous as a writer. As a civil rights activist, Angelou worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.