July 26, 2014

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Poet, author Maya Angelou dies at 86

In this Feb. 15, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama kisses author and poet Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

In this Feb. 15, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama kisses author and poet Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Maya Angelou was gratified, but not surprised by her extraordinary fortune.

“I’m not modest,” she told The Associated Press in 2013. “I have no modesty. Modesty is a learned behavior. But I do pray for humility, because humility comes from the inside out.”

Her story awed millions. The young single mother who worked at strip clubs to earn a living later danced and sang on stages around the world. A black woman born poor wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history. A childhood victim of rape, shamed into silence, eventually told her story through one of the most widely read memoirs of the past few decades.

Angelou, a Renaissance woman and cultural pioneer, died Wednesday morning at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, her son, Guy B. Johnson, said in a statement. The 86-year-old had been a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University since 1982.

“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace,” Johnson said.

Angelou had been set to appear this week at the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon, but canceled in recent days citing an unspecified illness.

Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, she was unforgettable whether encountered through sight, sound or the printed word. She was an actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s and broke through as an author in 1970 with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which became standard (and occasionally censored) reading and made Angelou one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success. “Caged Bird” was the start of a multipart autobiography that continued through the decades and captured a life of hopeless obscurity and triumphant, kaleidoscopic fame.

The world was watching in 1993 when she read her cautiously hopeful “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. Her confident performance openly delighted Clinton and made publishing history by making a poem a best-seller, if not a critical favorite. For President George W. Bush, she read another poem, “Amazing Peace,” at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House. Presidents honored her in return with a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. In 2013, she received an honorary National Book Award.

She called herself a poet, in love with the “sound of language,” ”the music in language,” as she explained to The Associated Press in 2013. But she lived so many lives. She was a wonder to Toni Morrison, who marveled at Angelou’s freedom from inhibition, her willingness to celebrate her own achievements. She was a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, whom she befriended when Winfrey was still a local television reporter, and often appeared on her friend’s talk show program. She mastered several languages and published not just poetry, but advice books, cookbooks and children’s stories. She wrote music, plays and screenplays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in “Roots,” and 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 told The Associated Press in 2008, shortly before her 80th birthday.

Her very name as an adult was a reinvention. Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother. She was smart and fresh to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn’t speak at all: At age 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t talk for years. She learned by reading, and listening.

“I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: ‘Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,’” she told the AP. “It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And ‘Deep River.’ Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about 7 1/2, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library. … And I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it.”

At age 9, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel, was married, and then divorced. But by her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She also spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou’s son, Guy, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”

After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage (“Maya” was a childhood nickname, “Angelou” a variation of her husband’s name), she toured in “Porgy and Bess” and Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Nelson Mandela, a longtime friend; and Malcolm X, to whom she remained close until his assassination, in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.

“Every year, on that day, Coretta and I would send each other flowers,” Angelou said of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.

Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which might not have happened if James Baldwin hadn’t persuaded Angelou, still grieving over King’s death, to attend a party at Jules Feiffer’s house. Feiffer was so taken by Angelou that he mentioned her to Random House editor Bob Loomis, who persuaded her to write a book by daring her into it, saying that it was “nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature.”

“Well, maybe I will try it,” Angelou responded. “I don’t know how it will turn out. But I can try.”

Angelou’s musical style was clear in a passage about boxing great Joe Louis’s defeat in 1936 against German fighter Max Schmeling:

“My race groaned,” she wrote. “It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. … If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.”

Angelou’s memoir was occasionally attacked, for seemingly opposite reasons. In a 1999 essay in Harper’s, author Francine Prose criticized “Caged Bird” as “manipulative” melodrama. Meanwhile, Angelou’s passages about her rape and teen pregnancy have made it a perennial on the American Library Association’s list of works that draw complaints from parents and educators.

“‘I thought that it was a mild book. There’s no profanity,” Angelou told the AP. “It speaks about surviving, and it really doesn’t make ogres of many people. I was shocked to find there were people who really wanted it banned, and I still believe people who are against the book have never read the book.”

Angelou appeared on several TV programs, notably the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries “Roots.” She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her appearance in the play “Look Away.” She directed the film “Down in the Delta,” about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta. She won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community.

Back in the 1960s, Malcolm X had written to Angelou and praised her for her ability to communicate so directly, with her “feet firmly rooted on the ground.” In 2002, Angelou communicated in an unexpected way when she launched a line of greeting cards with industry giant Hallmark. Angelou admitted she was cool to the idea at first. Then she went to Loomis, her editor at Random House.

“I said, ‘I’m thinking about doing something with Hallmark,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘You’re the people’s poet. You don’t want to trivialize yourself.’ So I said ‘OK’ and I hung up. And then I thought about it. And I thought, if I’m the people’s poet, then I ought to be in the people’s hands — and I hope in their hearts. So I thought, ‘Hmm, I’ll do it.’”

In North Carolina, she lived in an 18-room house and taught American Studies at Wake Forest University. She was also a member of the board of trustees for Bennett College, a private school for black women in Greensboro. Angelou hosted a weekly satellite radio show for XM’s “Oprah & Friends” channel.

She remained close enough to the Clintons that in 2008 she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy over the ultimately successful run of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama. But a few days before Obama’s inauguration, she was clearly overjoyed. She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she would be watching it on television “somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know.”

Active on the lecture circuit, she gave commencement speeches and addressed academic and corporate events across the country. Angelou received dozens of honorary degrees, and several elementary schools were named for her. As she approached her 80th birthday, she decided to study at the Missouri-based Unity Church, which advocates healing through prayer.

“I was in Miami and my son (Guy Johnson, her only child) was having his 10th operation on his spine. I felt really done in by the work I was doing, people who had expected things of me,” said Angelou, who then recalled a Unity church service she attended in Miami.

“The preacher came out — a young black man, mostly a white church — and he came out and said, ‘I have only one question to ask, and that is, “Why have you decided to limit God?’” And I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been doing.’ So then he asked me to speak, and I got up and said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And I said it about 50 times, until the audience began saying it with me, ‘Thank you, THANK YOU!’”

  • SniperFire

    Strange what National news the C-T ignores vs. what they decide to feature.

    • Sis Delish

      Dark Days Indeed… some call it, Affirmative In-Action.

    • Ghostwriter

      No I don’t recall any EXPLOSION over any Bush administration blunder involving a CIA staff member, but I have heard about both mistakes made by the Bush and Obama administrations. You are just overly sensitive. Both you and Sis Delish have serious issues, all you do is whine and complain about everything you read on this site. What is the problem with celebrating the life of someone who wrote positive literature that inspired millions, since this is the story you decided to post your anti-everything non-right wing comment.

      • Sis Delish

        If you don’t recall, you must be a Democrat. (Okay, I’ll toss you a doggie bone: Search on Scooter Libby, Ghostwriter).

        • Ghostwriter

          Well I guess that’s what happen’s when a VP’s Chief of Staff is found guilty of making false statements to the FBI, lying to a grand jury and obstructing an investigation. Now why do you and SniperFire have to infuse your political agenda into every article posted on this site? It’s ridiculous. I guess you get enjoyment out of turning every single topic of discussion and/or article into a political argument, if so that’s sad and I feel sorry for you. Have a nice day.

          • Sis Delish

            Here are Ghostwriters Top Non-Political Posts in sequential order:

            (Actually, everyone of them is Political, Ghostwriter is Guilty of his Own Misfeasances)

            (Most are Racists comments to boot)

            Ghostwriter • 5 hours ago

            No I don’t recall any EXPLOSION over any Bush administration blunder involving a CIA staff member, but I have heard about both mistakes made by the Bush and Obama administrations. You are just overly sensitive. Both you and Sis Delish have serious issues, all you do is whine and complain about everything you read on this site. What is the problem with celebrating the life of someone who wrote positive literature that inspired millions, since this is the story you decided to post your anti-everything non-right wing comment.

            Discussion on The Chronicle Telegram
            Uncle, nephew face drug trafficking charges
            Ghostwriter • 7 days ago

            DEEMED POLITICAL BY SIS DELISH

            Where are all of the race related comments, that we would typically see/read, from the many ignorant posters on this site? I guess since the perpetrators are white then race will not be brought up in this thread.

            Discussion on The Chronicle Telegram
            Search warrant unsealed in attack, robbery of police chief’s nephew
            Ghostwriter • 13 days ago

            DEEMED POLITICAL BY SIS DELISH

            What’s the solution to white crime? You know, the many heroin and crack addicts who burglarize cars and buildings throughout the city of Elyria? We might as well even things up here, as far as white versus criminals of all other races. While we’re on the topic I would also like to get rid of all of the drunk, redneck wife beaters throughout Lorain County. When you find a solution for that let me know, thanks.

            Discussion on The Chronicle Telegram
            Cleveland among 15 cities Democrats eyeing for 2016 convention
            Ghostwriter • a month ago

            DEEMED POLITICAL BY SIS DELISH

            My reasoning was just as stupid as blaming one party for the collapse of a city. No one party is to blame for all problems that have ever existed. I could easily make an argument that the economy collapsed because of right wing policies, or should I say lack thereof, but that wouldn’t be fair because both parties had a hand in it. Stop the nonsense of pretending like Republicans can do no wrong and have never contributed to any problems.

            Ghostwriter • a month ago

            DEEMED POLITICAL BY SIS DELISH

            The fall of Detroit happened long before Obama was elected. One could argue that it was the fault of your boy George Dubya. You remember, that guy who thought we should invade Iraq soon after we were attacked by Saudis who were hiding in Pakistan and Afghanistan? The war in Iraq didn’t cost the country very much money did it? Detroit’s failings wasn’t because of the war, but it sure of heck wasn’t Obama’s fault.

            Discussion on The Chronicle Telegram
            Online effort flourishing to get Elyria man new set of wheels after carjacking
            Ghostwriter • a month ago

            DEEMED POLITICAL BY SIS DELISH

            I understand we won’t all agree on all issues, but to argue against wanting to protect the environment seems funny to me. I guess destroying the environment is OK if it’s for the almighty dollar, because money = happiness correct? Are we ever going to learn to work together to accomplish what is best for the general mass, no matter which political side we fall on? Or will we just continue this nonsense of bashing one another, all while not getting anything productive accomplished, just because we don’t like one sides stance on a few issues? People on the far wing of each political view are the problem, I’m sure most of us would be willing to meet in the middle of most issues. I apologize for steering off of the path of what this article is about, but politics are so annoying. Though I would consider myself a Democrat, I would much rather have grown up in a more simpler time than we live in today.

            Ghostwriter • a month ago

            DEEMED POLITICAL BY SIS DELISH

            Mark B will turn anything into a political debate. The fact that the temperature is supposed to drastically drop on Tuesday is the fault of every liberal/democrat, according to Mark, and the likes of him.

            Discussion on The Chronicle Telegram
            Elyria man admits to robbing 3 banks

            Ghostwriter • 2 months ago

            DEEMED POLITICAL BY SIS DELISH
            While according to most conservatives the blame is placed on Obamacare.

            There you have it, in all its Glory. Ghostwriter chatting out of his/her backside. Evidence is solid, and the Ghostwriter is Outed!

            LOL in the Biggest Capital Letters which can be Posted!

          • SniperFire

            LOL. Serious beatdown.

          • Ghostwriter

            I think you need some training on your categorization skills. You live a sad and miserable life, I will keep both you and SniperFire in my prayers when I pray for all of the sick and suffering.

          • Sis Delish

            Train-away!

            You sound repentative, like a convict just before the gallows.

          • Ghostwriter

            And you have way too much time on your hands. Here’s a thought, why don’t you find something productive to do that you may benefit from, as opposed to sitting in front of your computer all day long? Though I’m sure the fact of the matter is that you have such a miserable/negative attitude that no one wants to be around you, so therefore you sit in your house/apartment with the blinds closed and your assault rifles by your side, possibly doing some “Doomsday” prepping. Then again you do get out every now and again for your Klan meetings, so at least you have that.

          • Sis Delish

            Is that any way to reply to a “Serious beatdown”? LOL.

            Bye Ghostwriter, hello Guest… LOL

          • ekwaykway

            Guest said sitting in front of the computer all day.

      • SniperFire

        ‘No I don’t recall any EXPLOSION over any Bush administration blunder involving a CIA staff member’

        LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL
        How old are you? 12?

        ‘The Democrats did their best to turn Valerie Plame into a martyr even though the only danger that the leftist faced was fewer invitations to cocktail parties. That didn’t stop Hollywood liberals from churning out a movie about her complete with action scenes.

        Will the same standard hold for whoever outdated the CIA Station Chief in Afghanistan? Unlikely. The official narrative is that it was an accident. But if you believe that it’s an accident, then you also have to believe in the complete and total incompetence of Obama Inc. when it comes to security issues.’

        http://www.frontpagemag.com/2014/dgreenfield/valerie-plame-and-obamas-double-standard-on-outing-cia-personnel/

        • Kevin Jenkins

          Who cares what this old prostitute used to do?

          • Simon Jester

            lmao.

            Don’t paint hard working prostitutes with the same brush as that Marxist poetess.

          • SniperFire

            Marxist, hater, racist and very bad poet.

    • angelandfire

      And why does it matter? Who cares.

  • Scout

    I agree with SniperFire, however the article is about a very brave and accomplished person and that is where the comments should be focused,

  • golfingirl

    “She was also a member of the board of trustees for Bennett College, a private school for black women in Greensboro.”

    I thought she was the “people’s poet.” All people, regardless of gender, or race.

    Can anyone say “hypocrisy.”

    • Otter

      Enlighten me, how does being on the board of trustees at a school for black women = hypocrisy? (keeping in mind all her achievements, not singling out one)

      • golfingirl

        She viewed America as a nation rife with racism. To participate at any level at a school, which allows only black females to attend, to me is racist in of itself. I find hypocrisy in this.

        She was nothing more than angry socialist poet who hated America and all it stands for. Her poetry was mediocre at best, and if it weren’t for the liberals forcing students to read it on college campuses, it would have died years ago.

        She spoke at the bigot Louis Farrakhan’s Million-Man March, was a supporter of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution and takeover of Cuba and fought for the cop-killing Muslim Mumia Abu-Jamal to be released from prison.

        She returned to America, after leaving and stating she would never return, at the urging of Malcolm X, so she could help him attack U.S. racism in the United Nations and help him build the Nation of Islam, under the guise this was a civil rights movement.

        She spoke against racism, but held a position at an institution, which limited enrollment only to a particular race and gender. I find this very hypocritical.

        • Otter

          I see your point, but will respectfully disagree. I admit, I was never a fan, and didn’t know much about her. I do know that well into the 1960′s there were still “Whites only” lunch counters, and drinking fountains, and when I visited there in the 70′s I actually heard a woman use the word “niggra”, while her husband was saying he had never seen (and never would) the movie Gone With The Wind, because “the wrong side won” I was, to say the least shocked. So while I don’t agree with everything she said, or did, I can understand that she lived in a different world than I did, and I can respect that.

          • golfingirl

            All good points. She also used the “n” word in some of her “poetry.”

            Maybe I just never cared much for poetry in general.

            Anyway, nice to disagree in a civil and constructive way.