Maya Angelou obituary: Inspirational writer and activist whose remarkable series of memoirs charted a troubled, eventful life

She wrote about  blackness from the inside, without  apology or defence

Peter Guttridge
Thursday 29 May 2014 16:50
Tremendous presence: Angelou in New York City
Tremendous presence: Angelou in New York City

Dr Maya Angelou (her preferred title) wrote six memoirs about her life up to the age of 40, the most celebrated of which was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. An inspirational and influential woman, she was also a poet, novelist, dramatist, dancer, actor, film-maker and Civil Rights activist. She was also a performer of great presence, winning three Grammies for spoken word albums. Some critics found her memoirs self-absorbed, even for memoirs, but no one can deny her massive cultural and literary significance.

She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4 April 1928 in St Louis, Missouri. (Maya was the name her brother, Bailey, gave her when he had trouble pronouncing her real one – and Angelou was a variation on her first husband’s name.) Her father, also Bailey, was a sometime doorman and a naval dietician. Her mother, Vivian, was at different times a nurse, professional gambler, bar owner, entertainer and boarding house owner.

Her parents were living in Long Beach, California when they decided to end their “calamitous marriage”. Maya, aged three, and her brother, were sent alone by train, with name tags on their wrists and tickets pinned to her brother’s inside pocket, to live with their redoubtable paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. It was a town, she later wrote, that “With its dust and hate and narrowness was as South as it was possible to get.”

Angelou’s grandmother thriftily ran the only general store in Stamps for blacks and protected her disabled son, Uncle Willie, from the Ku Klux Klan by hiding him in the vegetable bin when required. Angelou later wrote of her childhood there: “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.”

In the mid-1930s, when Angelou was seven, she and her brother moved to St Louis to live with her mother. Soon after, Angelou was raped by her mother’s lover. Angelou named him and he was convicted, but set free pending imprisonment. Before he could begin his sentence, he was kicked to death, probably by her four uncles.

Angelou and her brother returned to her grandmother in Stamps but, traumatised by the rape and the punishment, Angelou did not properly speak again for five years. She later wrote: “Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die.”

A family friend encouraged her reading, both from the classics, such as Austen and Dickens, and Harlem renaissance writers, such as Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Encouraged also to read her poetry aloud, Angelou eventually found her voice again.

Several years later, the two children went again to live with their mother, who was by now running a boarding house in San Francisco. Angelou attended Mission High School, but aged 14 ran away to find her father. She apparently lived rough in Los Angeles and Mexico for a time. Returning to San Francisco, she graduated from high school – she had also been taking outside lessons in dance and drama – and a few weeks later gave birth to a son from a casual encounter with a boy in the neighbourhood. She never named the father in her writings.

She worked briefly as a streetcar conductor – possibly the first African-American female in that post – then as a “shake dancer” and a barmaid. She also, aged 17, was the madam for two lesbian prostitutes, paying the rent on the house they used for a 50-50 split of the money they made. They ripped her off – so she went on to be a waitress and a cook until an older black man she got involved with, called “Daddie”, briefly lured her into prostitution to help him, he said, “repay a gambling debt”.

In her early 20s, she married a former sailor and musician, Anastasios (Tosh) Angelopulos. The marriage, however, was quickly over, and she trained as a dancer with Martha Graham and worked as a nightclub singer, taking for the first time the professional name Maya Angelou. She danced on television shows with the African-American choreographer and dancer Alvin Ailey.

In 1954, aged 26, she went on a two-year tour of Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess. Afterwards, she moved to New York, and in 1957 met Billie Holiday through a mutual friend. At the time, Angelou was a calypso singer: she appeared in the show and film Calypso Heat Wave and released an album, Miss Calypso.

In one of her memoirs, Angelou noted that Holiday walked out of one of her calypso performances. Angelou recalled Holiday saying: “You want to be famous, don’t you? You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”

Encouraged by the writer James Baldwin, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, but continued to act, especially in a noted off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, alongside Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. She helped to organise, wrote for and performed in the 1960 Cabaret for Freedom to benefit Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In 1961 she met the South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Cairo, where she worked as an editor for the Arab Observer, an English-language weekly. When the relationship broke up the following year, she took her son to Ghana, where she wrote for The Ghanaian Times, acted as feature editor for The African Review and was an administrative assistant at the University of Ghana.

In Ghana she met the radical Civil Rights activist and Muslim minister, Malcolm X. In 1964 she returned to America to work with him in his new Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated before her work could begin, though, and the organization dissolved.

She became a market researcher in Watts, Los Angeles, until the 1965 riots in the neighbourhood disrupted her work. She was due to help Martin Luther King, at his request, promote the SCLC on a trip around the country, but then King was assassinated on her 40th birthday.

Baldwin encouraged her to begin the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a narrative about suffering, survival and ultimate triumph. When published in 1969, it was a massive international success. As an article in the New Yorker noted: “She wrote about blackness from the inside, without apology or defense.”

There were six more memoirs: Gather Together in My Name (1974); Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976); The Heart of a Woman (1981); All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986); A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002); and Mom & Me & Mom (2013).

In 1972 she wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the Swedish-American film Georgia, Georgia about a black American singer going to Stockholm for a gig and falling for an American deserter from Vietnam. Her script, the first by an African-American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

She continued to appear on television and in films including a Tony-nominated part in Alex Haley’s Roots (1977).

In 1973 she married again, this time Paul de Feu, former husband of Germaine Greer. The marriage lasted until 1981. (Angelou was cagey about how many times she had married. Three marriages are known.) After the divorce, she took up a position as Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and remained in that state thereafter.

In 1993 she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. Also in 1993 her poetry was used in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, a drama about a young woman (Janet Jackson) finding herself through poetry.

In 1996, age 68, she directed (but didn’t write) her first feature film, Down in the Delta, about a single mother and her kids leaving the city to discover their roots in rural Mississippi. In 2008 she composed poetry for and narrated an award-winning documentary, The Black Candle, about Kwanzaa, the celebration of African-American culture that takes place each year in the Americas from 26 December to 1 January.

In 2011 President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, quoting her lines: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” She had served on two presidential committees and received, among other honours, over 50 honorary degrees.

Her poetry was mostly well-received. One volume – Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie – was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She also wrote award-winning cook books.

In the Nineties, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now and Even the Stars Look Lonesome were what the New Yorker said “could best be described as Angelou’s wisdom books”. They focused on an “inner journey” that appealed to millions of readers. She wrote in the introduction to her Letter to My Daughter: “Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.” For her admirers, Angelou herself more than achieved that.

Maya Angelou (Marguerite Annie Johnson), writer: born St Louis, Missouri 4 April 1928; one son; died Winston-Salem, North Carolina 28 May 2014.

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