NEW YORK – Throughout her writing, Maya Angelou explored the concepts of personal identity and resilience through the multifaceted lens of race, sex, family, community and the collective past.
As a whole, her work offered a clear-eyed examination of the ways in which the socially marginalizing forces of racism and sexism played out at the level of the individual.
“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,” Angelou wrote.
Angelou, the memoirist and poet whose landmark book of 1969, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” – which describes in lyrical, unsparing prose her childhood in the Jim Crow South – was among the first autobiographies by a 20th century black woman to reach a wide general readership, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was 86.
The cause of death was not immediately known, but she had been frail for some time and had heart problems.
In a statement, President Obama 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.”
As well-known as she was for her memoirs, which eventually filled six volumes, Angelou very likely received her widest exposure on a chilly January day in 1993, when she delivered the inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the swearing-in of Bill Clinton, the nation’s 42nd president, who, like Angelou, had grown up poor in rural Arkansas.
Long before that day, as she recounted in “Caged Bird” and its five sequels, she had already been a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, single mother, magazine editor in Cairo, administrative assistant in Ghana, official of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and friend or associate of some of the most eminent black Americans of the mid-20th century, including James Baldwin, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Afterward (her six-volume memoir takes her only to age 40), Angelou was a Tony-nominated stage actress; college professor (she was for many years the Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem); ubiquitous presence on the lecture circuit; frequent guest on television shows, from “Oprah” to “Sesame Street”; and subject of a string of scholarly studies.
In February 2011, Obama presented her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Hallmarks of Angelou’s prose style included a directness of voice that recalls African-American oral tradition and gives her work the quality of testimony. She was also intimately concerned with sensation, describing the world around her – be it Arkansas, San Francisco or the foreign cities in which she lived – with palpable feeling for its sights, sounds and smells.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published when Angelou was in her early 40s, spans only her first 17 years. But what powerfully formative years they were.
Marguerite Ann Johnson was born in St. Louis on April 4, 1928. (For years after King’s assassination, on April 4, 1968, Angelou did not celebrate her birthday.)
After her parents’ marriage ended, 3-year-old Maya was sent with her older brother, Bailey, to live with their father’s mother in the tiny town of Stamps, Ark., which, she later wrote, “with its dust and hate and narrowness was as South as it was possible to get.”
Their grandmother, Annie Henderson, owned a general store “in the heart of the Negro area,” Angelou wrote. An upright woman known as Momma, “with her solid air packed around her like cotton,” she is a warm, stabilizing presence throughout “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
The children returned periodically to St. Louis to live with their mother. On one such occasion, when Maya was 7 or 8 (her age varies slightly across her memoirs, which employ the techniques of fiction to recount actual events), she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
She told her brother, who alerted the family, and the man was tried and convicted. Before he could begin serving his sentence, he was murdered – probably, Angelou wrote, by her uncles. Believing that her words had brought about the death, Maya did not speak for the next five years. Her love of literature, as she later wrote, helped restore language to her.
After her marriage dissolved, she embarked on a career as a calypso dancer and singer under the name Maya Angelou, a variant of her married name. A striking stage presence – she was 6 feet tall – she occasionally partnered in San Francisco with Alvin Ailey in a nightclub dance act known as Al and Rita.
She was cast in the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers,” which opened on Broadway in 1954. But she chose instead to tour the world as a featured dancer in a production of “Porgy and Bess” by the Everyman Opera Company, a black ensemble.
Angelou later settled in New York, where she became active in the Harlem Writers Guild (she hoped to be a poet and playwright), sang at the Apollo and eventually succeeded Bayard Rustin as the coordinator of the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that he, King and others had founded.
In 1973, Angelou appeared on Broadway in “Look Away,” a two-character play about Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Geraldine Page) and her seamstress. Though the play closed after one performance, Angelou was nominated for a Tony Award. On the screen, she portrayed Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the 1977 television mini-series “Roots” and appeared in several feature films, including “How to Make an American Quilt” (1995).
Angelou’s marriage in the 1970s to Paul du Feu, who had previously been wed to the feminist writer Germaine Greer, ended in divorce.
Angelou, who called herself "a teacher who writes" rather than vice versa, became a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest in 1981.
Survivors include her son, Guy Johnson; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.