'Extraordinary' and 'charismatic' poet Maya Angelou dies at 86

eleland@charlotteobserver.comMay 28, 2014 

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    Wake Forest University has published a remembrance site at mayaangelou

    .wfu.edu where people can share condolences.

  • Excerpt from “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”:

    Mother’s beauty made her powerful and her power made her unflinchingly honest. When we asked her what she did, what her job was, she walked us to Oakland’s Seventh Street, where dusty bars and smoke shops sat in the laps of storefront churches. She pointed out Raincoat’s Pinochle Parlor and Slim Jenkins’ pretentious saloon. Some nights she played pinochle for money or ran a poker game at Mother Smith’s or stopped at Slim’s for a few drinks. She told us that she never cheated anybody and wasn’t making any preparations to do so. Her work was as honest as the job held by fat Mrs. Walker (a maid), who lived next door to us, “and a damn sight better paid.’’ She wouldn’t bust suds for anybody nor be anyone’s kitchen bitch. The good Lord gave her a mind and she intended to use it to support her mother and her children. She didn’t need to add “And have a little fun along the way.’’

— Writer Maya Angelou has died at 86. But if you read her poems, you can still hear her rich, deep voice caressing every syllable:

Come you death, in haste, do come,

My shroud of black be weaving,

Quiet my heart, be deathly quiet,

My true love is leaving.

“She was an extraordinary, charismatic person,” said Edwin Wilson, a former provost and English professor at Wake Forest University, where Angelou taught. “She had a way of bringing an audience very much to within her grasp.”

Wilson said Angelou had complained recently about feeling ill. On Friday, she posted what would be her last tweet: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

Some time before 8 a.m. Wednesday, she “passed quietly in her home,” her son wrote on Facebook.

Angelou (pronounced An-je-low) was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis. She was raised by her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Ark. – “swollen-belly poor,’’ she described it. At 16, she had her only child, son Guy Johnson. She married and divorced at least two times but would never say how many. She was a poet, author, dancer, actress, songwriter, civil rights activist, streetcar conductor, Creole cook, cocktail waitress, filmmaker, script writer. While touring as an entertainer in Europe and Africa in the 1950s, she assumed the name Maya Angelou. Maya was what her brother, who had a lisp, called her. Angelou was her married surname at the time.

Liberated from abuse

Angelou emerged into prominence as an author in 1969 with her first book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It became a critical and commercial success. In it, she described being raped at age 7 by her mother’s boyfriend.

“I had to make a decision that I would tell a truth which might liberate me, and might liberate others,’’ she once told The Charlotte Observer. “I have a file in my office filled with letters from women and men, mostly women, who read ‘Caged Bird’ and somehow felt liberated enough to tell their mothers, or to confront their fathers or their uncles or their brothers, as grown women, and to say, ‘This was cruel, what you did to me.’ 

She dedicated the book to her son and “all the strong black birds of promise who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs.”

For six years after the rape, Angelou said, she rarely spoke, and only to her brother. That experience nurtured the writer in her.

“I spent six years as a mute,’’ she told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution in 2002, “and so I had read everything. And I had memorized. I memorized 60 sonnets. And I memorized Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen and Edgar Allan Poe. I loved Poe so much I called him ‘Eap’ to myself.’’

‘Maya who?’

Early in her career, she began renting hotel rooms where she would write. She would take a yellow pad, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a Bible and a bottle of sherry.

“I’m very fortunate, here in my town, to have a hotel which I use,” she told The Charlotte Observer, referring to Winston-Salem. “And everyone there, from the clerks, the counter people, the reservations people, the maids and the janitors and so forth, everyone says they don’t know me.

“People call or come by and say, ‘Is this the place where Maya Angelou is? And they say, ‘Maya who?’ 

Angelou moved to Winston-Salem in the early 1980s after being given a lifetime position as the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.

Betsy Newhall took the first class Angelou taught. “You challenged my ideas, and my long term opinions,” Newhall wrote Wednesday on a remembrance website, mayaangelou.wfu.edu. “You became an inspiration for life-long learning, grace under pressure, and sheer survival. ... I carry your wisdom with me every day.”

After Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, he asked Angelou to read a poem at his inauguration, the first poem at an inauguration in 32 years.

She called it “On the Pulse of the Morning.” In it, she spoke of hope for the country’s future but also reminded listeners of two despairs from the past: the Trail of Tears and slavery.

History, despite its wrenching pain

Cannot be unlived, but if freed

With courage, need not be lived again.

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for her lifetime contributions.

“The voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday. “In fact, she inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory said her adopted state mourns the loss. Though she “counseled presidents and historic figures ...,” McCrory said, “she’ll be remembered most for her compassion for people around the world, regardless of their station in life.”

A fixture at Duke

Two dozen times, Angelou spoke to first-year students at Duke University’s annual fall convocation. Like most Duke students in the past two decades, Jennifer Sherman’s first college experience was listening to Angelou’s soaring voice fill Duke Chapel. Sherman recalled how Angelou advised freshmen to carry around poems in their pockets.

“And that first week of school, I did. Because you know, I thought, when Maya Angelou tells you to do something, you do it,” Sherman said May 11 in her own speech to fellow graduates. “So I spent that first week of school with a single line written on a scrap of paper in the front pocket of my backpack. It’s from the Roman philosopher Terentius, and Maya Angelou had made it the focus of her speech that year. ‘I am a human being. Nothing that is human can be alien to me.’ It stayed with me.”

Last fall at Wake Forest, where Angelou taught for 32 years, she addressed students at a program on respect and dignity. She talked about beauty, kindness and intelligence. And she broke into a few bars of song.

“I thought for a long time that I was a writer who could teach,” she said. “But after being at Wake Forest for five or six years, I realized I’m a teacher who can write.”

Her first group of students were like “little sparrows,” she said. She insisted they call her Maya but disabused them of any notion that they were taking a lecture with a celebrity. “You’ll never work as hard again as you will work in my class,” she recalled telling them. “However, you will never be the same.”

This fall, she was due to teach a course on race, culture and gender in the South.

During a talk in Charlotte last June, Angelou recalled an incident many years before when she worked as a producer at 20th Century Fox. Several co-workers used a racial epithet in her office. She immediately walked out and quit the job. That took a lot of courage, she said.

“Courage is the most important of all virtues,” she said, 6 feet tall and still regal-looking in her wheelchair, wearing a bright red hat. “Without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

‘Love of language’

Angelou found herself at the center of controversy in 2001 after she partnered with Hallmark Cards on a line of greeting cards and other products.

“I think it’s preposterous,” said Billy Collins, then poet laureate of the United States. “It lowers the understanding of what poetry actually can do.”

Angelou said she saw it as a literary challenge: Distill an inspiration into two sentences. “I have not reduced my value or respect for words or love of the language,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I have accepted the challenge to say what I mean succinctly and I’m having a ball. It was exactly what I needed after ‘A Song Flung up to Heaven.’ 

“A Song Flung up to Heaven” was the sixth volume of her autobiography, published in 2002. It included memories of motherhood, as well as the assassinations in the 1960s of her friends Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The last sentence of that volume is the same as the first sentence of her first volume, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”:

“What are you looking at me for?’’ she wrote. “I didn’t come to stay.”

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed to this report.

Leland: 704-358-5074

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