Maya Angelou dies: ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated’
The American author, poet and civil rights activist was 86
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Wednesday 28 May 2014
At 6ft tall, Maya Angelou may have been an imposing physical figure, but it is her cultural stature that was truly unsurpassed.
The civil rights figurehead and author of more than 30 books, including the ground-breaking memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, died on Wednesdayat her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In her 86 years, Ms Angelou had been an activist, a novelist, a magazine editor and a college professor, a dancer, actress, calypso singer and streetcar conductor.
Her poems and autobiographical prose made her one of America’s foremost voices on race and gender, and her optimism in spite of a troubled early life made her an inspiration to millions. She spoke six languages, taught American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem beginning in 1981, and had more than 30 honorary degrees from other universities.
But though she was known to her students and followers as Dr Angelou, she never in fact earned a university degree. Instead, “I created myself,” she said. “I have taught myself so much.”
She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St Louis, Missouri in April 1928. Maya was a nickname given to her by her brother; she retained the surname Angelou after taking it from one of her husbands. Her parents divorced when she was three, and her early childhood was divided between St Louis and the severely racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.
Maya Angelou dies: Appreciation by her friend Margaret Busby
Maya Angelou dead: Watch author recite powerful Nelson Mandela tribute poem
At the age of seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, whom she subsequently saw being beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him in court. “My seven-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she recalled later. Though spoken language temporarily deserted her, she said often that this period of silence was when she first developed a deep relationship with the written word.
As a young teenager Ms Angelou studied dance and drama in San Francisco, but she dropped out when she was just 14 to become not only the city’s first African-American streetcar conductor, but also its first female one. She eventually graduated from high school aged 17, and in the same year gave birth to her son, Guy. She had not lost her passion for performance, and during the mid-1950s she travelled to Europe with a touring production of the opera Porgy and Bess. In 1957 she recorded an album, entitled Miss Calypso.
A bouquet of flowers and a magazine showing Maya Angelou on the cover lie outside her home (AP)
Yet it was not until she became involved with the civil rights movement in the 1960s that Angelou began to turn her hand to writing. She was friends with both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, and was distraught after Dr King was assassinated on her 40th birthday. In 1969, after a period spent working in Africa as a magazine editor, she published the first of her memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which recounted her life up to the age of 17.
“All my work, my life, everything is about survival,” Ms Angelou once said. “All my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.’ In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.”
Though she was celebrated primarily for her writing, Angelou also received several Tony Award nominations for her theatre work and an Emmy nod for her TV role in the 1977 slavery drama Roots. In 1998, she even directed a feature film, Down in the Delta. For many years she was a close friend and mentor of Oprah Winfrey, who referred to Angelou as her “mother-sister-friend”.
Already a national figure, Angelou took to the national stage in 1993, when the new President Bill Clinton invited her to read one of her poems at his inauguration. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award. Shortly before Mr Obama’s inauguration as the first black President of the US, Ms Angelou told CNN his election had made her excited and hopeful for the future. “I’ve really said it so many times I wonder if I’m coming off like a piece of tape recording, but I’m very proud to be an American,” she said.
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 The top 50 cities for young people to live in
General Election 2015: Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind as he casts a line to the disaffected of Grimsby
Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
Russian warships accused of 'chasing away' Swedish vessel to prevent Baltic States from achieving energy independence
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils
£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...
£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...