Obituary: Maya Angelou, writer and poet

Maya Angelou: Spirited writer who made poetry of personal stories exploring black American culture. Picture: AP
Maya Angelou: Spirited writer who made poetry of personal stories exploring black American culture. Picture: AP
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Born: 4 April, 1928, in St Louis, Missouri. Died: 28 May, 2014, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, aged 86

Maya Angelou was the voice and the spirit of a generation of black American women. She was born at a time when slavery was comparatively recent history and segregation was the norm, and she articulated her personal traumas and journey in her writing.

Raped as a child, she went through some terrible times, but always imagined a better world. It was hardly by chance that the title of her first volume of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, managed to ­allude both to slavery and to song. The image of the caged bird was one to which she would return again and again.

The title was borrowed from a haunting poem by the 19th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who Angelou cited as one of her two main ­literary inspirations, along with Shakespeare.

Angelou wrote volume after volume of autobiography, or as some called it “autobiographical fiction”, through which she revisited painful and degrading episodes in her life, and yet retained a certain majesty and mystique. There was a poetic quality even to her prose.

In the 1960s she campaigned in the civil rights movement with Dr Martin Luther King jnr and in 1993 she was the first poet since Robert Frost to recite at a presidential inauguration when she read for Bill Clinton.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928, she was the daughter of a sometime doorman and a nurse. Reputedly she got the name Maya from her brother, who called her “mya sister”.

Her parents’ marriage was a rocky one and when she was three she was sent to live with her father’s mother, who ran a store in Arkansas. Back with her mother in St Louis, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was seven. He was then murdered, possibly by her relatives. Feeling responsible, she did not speak a word for five years. Instead, she listened and watched.

Back living with her grandmother, again in Arkansas, she was introduced to the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens by a sympathetic teacher and immersed herself in books. She studied drama and dance in California, worked as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco and at 17 she became a single mother and resorted to prostitution to support her son, Clyde (he later changed his name to Guy).

In the early 1950s she was briefly married and sang and danced in venues in the San Francisco area, adopting the stage name Maya Angelou. She was good enough to be hired for a European touring production of Porgy and Bess. She made a point of learning the language of every country she visited.

It was in France in the 1950s that she first met James Baldwin, the African-American writer who was to become a close friend and important influence in her life, though her literary ­career was still some way off.

She recorded an album called Miss Calypso and performed in a film called Calypso Heat Wave. She also got to know Dr King and became increasingly involved in politics, campaigning with and fundraising for Dr King. In the 1960s she worked as a journalist in Egypt and Ghana and with Malcolm X in the US.

During these early years she was writing songs, poems and plays. She was deeply depressed by the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr King and may still have been struggling with unresolved issues from her own past.

Recognising her literary potential and attempting to give her new purpose, Baldwin challenged her to write an autobiography that also had genuine literary quality. At first she was reluctant. According to Angelou’s own account, Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis then tried a little reverse psychology by suggesting it was probably not possible to write autobiography that was also literature in its own right, at which point she shut herself away for two years and wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The story began with her being shipped off to her grandmother when she was three and traced her life through rape, trauma, bigotry and literary awakening to a resilient motherhood in her mid-teens. It established her reputation and was followed by six further volumes of autobiography.

When writing, her routine was to go to a hotel room, with writing materials, a bottle of sherry, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Bible and a pack of cards with which to play patience, which would relax her to the point where she could take her mind back to the time she was writing about. She found writing tough, but telling the truth a relief – not that critics and academics did not point out the many inconsistencies in her tales.

As well as autobiography, she also wrote poems, screenplays and music, including songs for Roberta Flack, she made films and occasionally acted. She was nominated for a Tony award for her performance in the historical play Look Away in 1973 and appeared in the landmark television series Roots in 1977.

There was a second marriage, to Paul du Feu, Germaine Greer’s ex-husband, though it too ended in divorce.

During the 1970s she met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was still working in local television in Baltimore and became her mentor and in the 1980s she accepted the post of Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and spent much time teaching.

Although Angelou had been lauded throughout the literary world, her appearance at Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 raised her profile and took her work to a wider audience. Her recording of the poem On the Pulse of Morning won a Grammy. In 2011 the first black US president, Barack Obama, awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour.

In later years she even wrote cookbooks, designed greetings cards for Hallmark and continued to accept speaking engagements into her eighties. Last year saw the appearance of Mom & Me & Mom, which told the story of her relationship with her mother. She is survived by her son Guy Johnson.