MAYA Angelou, the writer who rose from poverty, segregation and the harshest of childhoods to become America’s poet laureate and a prominent civil rights activist, died yesterday at 86.
In a statement announcing her death, her son Guy Johnson said: “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.”
Angelou died at home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She had been a professor of American studies at nearby Wake Forest University since 1982.
Last night staff at the university led tributes to one of America’s most revered writers.
“Dr Angelou was a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world, including countless students, faculty and staff at Wake Forest,” the university said in a statement.
Harold Augenbaum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said: “She was beyond simply being a writer of autobiography and poetry. I think she transcended the idea of writing and using writing as a transcendence medium to further the individual.”
Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, Angelou – born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis – defied all probability and category, becoming one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author and thriving in virtually every artistic medium. The young single mother who performed at strip clubs to earn a living later wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history. The childhood victim of rape, she wrote a million-selling memoir, befriended Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, and performed on stages around the world.
An actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s, she broke through as an author in 1970 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became standard reading, and was the first of a multi-part autobiography that continued through the decades.
In 1993, she was a sensation reading her cautiously hopeful “On the Pulse of the Morning” at former President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. Her confident performance made the poem a bestseller.
She remained close enough to the Clintons that in 2008 she supported Hillary Clinton’s candidacy over the ultimately successful run of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama.
A tribute from President Obama last night said: “When her friend Nelson Mandela passed away last year, Maya Angelou wrote that ‘No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again, and bring the dawn’.
“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.”
Angelou was a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, and often appeared on her friend’s talk show. She mastered several languages and published not only poetry, but advice books, cookbooks and children’s stories.
She never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry. “The line of the dancer: if you watch [Mikhail] Baryshnikov and you see that line, that’s what the poet tries for. The poet tries for the line, the balance,” she said in 2008.