Dr. Maya Angelou was a remarkable Renaissance woman, hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature. A poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director—she traveled the world, spreading her legendary wisdom.
Within the rhythm of her poetry and elegance of her prose Angelou’s unique power helped readers of every orientation span the lines of race. Angelou captivated audiences through the vigor and sheer beauty of her words and lyrics. Dr. Angelou passed at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Wednesday, May 28, at the age of 86.
Born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou was raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. In Stamps, young Maya experienced the brutality of racial discrimination, but also absorbed the unshakable faith and values of traditional African American family, community, and culture.
Her love for the arts won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. But at age 14, she dropped out to become San Francisco’s first African American female cable car conductor. She later finished high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation. The young single mother worked as a waitress and cook, but her passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry soon took center stage.
In 1954-55, she toured Europe with the opera Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows and, in 1957, recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, she moved to New York, joined the Harlem Writers Guild, acted in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom.
In 1960, Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt, then to Ghana, where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. Angelou read and studied voraciously, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti. She met with Malcolm X and in 1964, returned to America to help him build the Organization of African American Unity. But when Malcolm X was assassinated, the organization dissolved.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Angelou to serve as ‘northern coordinator’ for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King’s assassination, on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated.
With the guidance of her friend, novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970 to international acclaim and enormous popular success.
The list of her published verse, non-fiction, and fiction now includes more than 30 bestselling titles. Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. Her script, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
She appeared on television and in films including the landmark television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) and John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993). In 1996, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta. In 2008, she composed poetry for and narrated the award-winning documentary The Black Candle, directed by M.K. Asante.
President Clinton requested that she compose a poem, which she read at his inauguration in 1993. ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ was broadcast live around the world. Dr. Angelou served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, the 2010 Medal of Freedom given to her by President Obama, and received three Grammy awards.
Dr. Angelou received over 50 honorary degrees and was Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Dr. Angelou’s words and actions will continue to stir our souls, energize our bodies, liberate our minds, and heal our hearts.