Maya Angelou, who has died aged 86, was a poet, playwright, film-maker, journalist, editor, lyricist, teacher, singer, dancer, black activist, professor and holder of some 50 honorary degrees; she was principally famous, however, for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir of her dirt-poor upbringing in Arkansas.
When the book was published in 1969 it was a revelation. Narrated in the pulpit-influenced cadences of the black American South, it described a world completely alien to its mainly white, metropolitan readership.
It told how, after her parents divorced, Maya’s father sent her and her elder brother, Bailey, from their home in St Louis to live with their paternal grandmother in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas. Aged three and four, the two children arrived at the station wearing wrist tags reading: “To Whom It May Concern”.
During a brief return to St Louis to live with their mother, at the age of seven Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Soon after she had identified him as the rapist in court, he was murdered — kicked to death — by some of her uncles. For the next five years the young Maya became a voluntary mute, believing that her voice had killed him and that if she spoke again she might kill someone else.
Coaxed out of silence by a teacher who encouraged her love of reading with Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe and the Brontes, as well as black writers such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, she eventually joined her mother in California, won a scholarship to study drama and dance, and at the age of 17 became an unmarried mother.
Freshly and vividly written, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings became the first non-fiction work by a black woman to make the US national bestseller lists. Other volumes of autobiography followed, charting Maya Angelou’s career as a waitress, brothel madam, prostitute, singer, bus conductress, actress and black activist; as a dancer in Paris; an editor in Egypt; and a journalist and university administrator in Ghana.
As a woman and as a black American who had surmounted oppression to live the American Dream, Maya Angelou became a symbol for the post-segregation era, and a celebrity on the lecture circuit who drew huge crowds wherever she went. Her name appeared on everything from bookends to pillows and mugs, and her rhymes on Hallmark greetings cards. In 1993 she was chosen by President Clinton to recite her poem On the Pulse of the Morning at his inauguration.
Maya Angelou reading a poem at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration
Yet nothing ever equalled her first book. As she became more and more famous, her memoirs became increasingly self-congratulatory in tone; and critics noted that she had adopted all the clichés of her friend Oprah Winfrey’s aspirational narrative of “healing” and “empowerment”. The “diva”, one reviewer observed, had “come to believe her own hype”.
She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson (Maya was her brother Bailey’s diminutive) in St Louis, Missouri, on April 4 1928. Her father was a doorman and US Navy dietitian, her mother a nurse and card dealer.
After living with their grandmother in Arkansas, Maya and her brother returned to live, in Oakland, California, with their mother, a tiny, forthright woman with a colourful turn of phrase (“I’d rather be bitten on the rear by a snaggle-toothed mule than take that shit” was one of her sayings). During the Second World War, Maya attended George Washington High School in Oakland and studied dance and drama at the California Labor School. Before leaving school, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
Her son Guy, born in California when she was 17, was the result of her first sexual experiment, prompted by a desire to clarify her sexuality after she had convinced herself, from reading The Well of Loneliness, that she was becoming a lesbian. Her second book of memoirs, Gather Together in My Name (1974), described her life as an unemployed single mother in California, embarking on brief affairs and transient jobs, before she descended into poverty and the fringes of crime and prostitution.
In Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) she described her brief marriage to “Tosh” (Enistasious Angelos), a jazz-loving white man of Greek descent. After the marriage ended in 1954 she continued to dance and sing calypso professionally, touring in Porgy and Bess and changing her stage name from Marguerite Johnson to Maya Angelou. In 1957 she recorded an album, Miss Calypso, and appeared in an off-Broadway revue that inspired the film Calypso Heat Wave (1957), in which she sang and performed her own compositions.
Maya Angelou in a 1957 portrait taken for the Caribbean Calypso Festival
In 1959 Maya Angelou met the novelist James Killens, who suggested she move to New York to concentrate on her writing career. In The Heart of a Woman (1981) she described her immersion in the Harlem world of black writers and artists, and her work with Martin Luther King (she and Killens organised the Cabaret for Freedom in aid of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference). She also described her relationship with the South African rights activist Vusumzi Make — a man, by her account, of unlimited sex appeal who tried, but failed, to possess her, body and soul, and with whom she moved to Cairo, where she became the associate editor of the English-language Arab Observer.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) charted her three-year stay in Accra, Ghana, after the break-up of her relationship with Make. She was an administrator at the University of Ghana, and was active in the African-American expatriate community, becoming a features editor for The African Review and a freelance writer, broadcaster and actress.
In A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), the sixth episode of the Angelou saga, she recounted her return to America; her attempts to help Malcolm X build a new civil rights organisation, the Organisation of Afro-American Unity ; her devastation after his assassination; her return to life as a nightclub chanteuse in Hawaii; and her decision to write her first memoir.
Maya Angelou’s account of her time in Hawaii contains a passage which, to one reviewer, seemed to epitomise all that had gone wrong between the publication of her first and last books.
Worried about dwindling audiences at the nightclub, she decides, for her swansong performance, not to sing, but to dance: “I asked for the music, then invited it to enter my body and find the broken and sore places and restore them. That it would blow through my mind and dispel the fogs… I danced for the African I had loved and lost in Africa. I danced for bad judgments and good fortune. For moonlight lying like rich white silk on the sand before the great pyramids in Egypt and for the sound on ceremonial fontonfrom drums waking the morning air in Takoradi…. The dance was over, and the audience was standing and applauding.”
“With relief, perhaps?” suggested the reviewer.
But by this time Maya Angelou had become such an institution she could afford not to be bothered by jibes, often quoting a Ghanaian saying: “An elephant is rarely seriously bothered by a flea” .
She also wrote five books of essays and several collections of poetry, one of which — Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’Fore I Diiie — was nominated for a Pulitzer. Like her prose, her poetry ranged from the vivid and original to a sort of black American version of Pam Ayres .
Maya Angelou’s 1972 screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, was the first original script by a black woman to be produced, and she also published two cookery books. In 1977 she appeared in a supporting role as Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the television miniseries of Alex Haley’s Roots.
Maya Angelou embraced some unpredictable political standpoints over the years. There was surprise when, in 1995 she spoke at the “Million Man March”, supporting Louis Farrakhan, whom she had previously branded as “dangerous”. In 2008 she backed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama — who in 2010 presented Maya Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
From 1991 she taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she held the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. Until she was well into her eighties she made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit. Mom & Me & Mom, an overview of her life, was published last year.
Maya Angelou never clarified the number of times she had been married, “for fear of sounding frivolous”, although it was at least twice. One of her essays told of the end of her marriage, in 1973, to Paul du Feu, “a builder from London, a graduate of the London School of Economics, the first near-nude centrefold for Cosmopolitan magazine, formerly husband of Germaine Greer”.
Maya Angelou is survived by her son