Tributes poured in from all sides. International news channels, major newspapers worldwide and of course Twitter and Facebook gushed their homage to Maya Angelou. The iconic author, poet and activist, aged 86, breathed her last on Wednesday at her Winston-Salem, N.C. home.
Though she was known to have been in poor health for some time, nursing a heart problem to boot, nothing was immediately known about the cause of her death, which was confirmed in a statement issued by Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she had served as a professor of American Studies since 1982.
Her autobiographical magnum opus, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, when she was in her early 40s, is a poignant narrative of the first 17 years of her life and was described by The New York Times as “a lyrical, unsparing account of her childhood in the Jim Crow South” and “as among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman to reach a wide general readership”.
Curiously, this memoir also drew criticisms from some quarters. It was described as “manipulative” melodrama by author Francine Prose in her 1999 essay. Then, parents and educators took exceptions to passages in the book alluding to her rape and teenage pregnancy.
“I thought that it was a mild book. There’s no profanity,” Angelou had countered in an interviewer with the Associated Press. “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.”
In the book, she had written: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” Her enthralling writing style, which evokes the African-American oral tradition, imbues her work with the inimitable quality that brings the world around her to life.
The book, which took its title from a line in “Sympathy,” a work by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, would later be trailed by five other volumes of her memoir all published by Random House. They were Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ 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).
These volumes describe her efforts to raise her son, Guy Johnson, through a series of odd jobs. “Determined to raise him, I had worked as a shake dancer in nightclubs, fry cook in hamburger joints, dinner cook in a Creole restaurant and once had a job in a mechanic’s shop, taking paint off cars with my hands,” she wrote in Singin’ and Swingin’.
Though better known for her memoirs, she had released an album of songs, Miss Calypso, in 1957.
Originally born Marguerite Johnson in the US town of St. Louis born on April 4, 1928, she was raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco. She recalled moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother.
Her life was indeed a mosaic of diverse experiences. After she was raped at age 7 by her mother’s boyfriend, she was said not to have spoken for years and had learned by reading and listening. She had begun writing poetry at age 9, became a single mother at 17 and by her early 20s, had danced at a strip joint, had fleeting stints as a prostitute and a madam and married and divorced the first of her three husbands, Enistasious Tosh Angelos.
By the time she was in her mid-20s, she had become calypso singer and streetcar conductor. Performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, crossed her path with that of another future star, Phyllis Diller. But fate had other plans for her, as Billie Holiday, would tell her: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”
“I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: ‘Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,’” she said in an interview with 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 1/2, 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.”
She was persuaded to write the book which extended her renown beyond the theatrical community by Random House editor Bob Loomis. James Baldwin had persuaded her to attend a party at Jules Feiffer’s house. It was Feiffer who had introduced her to Loomis.
Her foray into the thespian world was also remarkable. She had first assumed the names Maya Angelou for the stage (taking “Maya” from a childhood nickname), then toured in Porgy and Bess and Jean Genet’s The Blacks and danced with Alvin Ailey.
Her activist years saw her working as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and spending sometime in Egypt and Ghana, where she met the legendary Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination, on February 21, 1965. She would later help Dr Martin Luther King Jr. organise the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tennessee, USA , where the civil rights leader was assassinated on her 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.
Her glistening career saw her hopscotch from a Tony nomination for her stage performances, to being ubiquitous on the lecture circuit, then featuring as a regular guest on television shows like “Oprah” and “Sesame Street” as well as being a college professor. They eventually, in February 2011, earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, her country’s highest civilian honour, which was presented to her by the US President Barack Obama.
President Obama had in a statement after her death on Wednesday said, “Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman,” adding, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”
The memories of Ms. Angelou’s recital of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” in 1993 at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ceremony still lingers. In that poem, shown as part of the tributes in some of the satellite channels, she chanted: A Rock, A River, A Tree/ Hosts to species long since departed,/Marked the mastodon,/ The dinosaur, who left dried tokens/Of their sojourn here/On our planet floor,/Any broad alarm of their hastening doom/Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages./But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,/Come, you may stand upon my/ Back and face your distant destiny,/ But seek no haven in my shadow,/ I will give you no hiding place down here.
She had read another poem , “Amazing Peace,” for former President George W. Bush. This was at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House.
Her closeness to the Clintons, probably because of their shared Arkansas roots, explained her unflinching support Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy in 2008. But that did not stop her from sharing in the euphoria of Obama’s eventual victory as the country’s first Black president. Ms Angelou wrote other books, which included the volumes of poetry. The books are: Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971), Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975); And Still I Rise (1978) and Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983). Add to these, Mom & Me & Mom, which she wrote last year.
Okechukwu Uwaezuoke with agency reports/THIS DAY