Wednesday, May 28, 2014

R.I.P. Dr. Maya Angelou

Poet and essayist Dr. Maya Angelou died Wednesday at the age of 86, according to reports in her hometown of Winston-Salem.  Her son, Guy Johnson, a poet and novelist, is her only immediate survivor.

Angelou was best known for the first of her six memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). She described being raped at 7 and becoming an unwed mother at 17.  In addition to her books, she was an actress, director, playwright, composer, singer and dancer.  She even once worked as a madam in a brothel and as the first female and first black street car conductor in San Francisco.  

Angelou spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco but dropped out at age 14, instead becoming the city's first African-American female cable car conductor.  Angelou later returned to high school to finish her diploma and gave birth a few weeks after graduation. While the 17-year-old single mother waited tables to support her son, she acquired a passion for music and dance, and toured Europe in the mid-1950s in the opera production "Porgy and Bess." In 1957, she recorded her first album, "Calypso Lady."

In 1958, Angelou become a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and also played a queen in "The Blacks," an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet.  Affectionately referred to as Dr. Angelou, the professor never went to college. But, she was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. 

Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis.  She grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.  The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy that stunned her into silence for years. When she was 7, her mother's boyfriend raped her. He was later beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him.  "My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years," she said.  

From the silence, a louder voice was born.

In 1954, she toured the world in the cast of Porgy and Bess. In 1960, she and comedian Godfrey Cambridge produced and starred in Cabaret Freedom, a benefit performance for Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She later served as its Northern coordinator.

From 1963 to 1966, she taught music and dance at the University of Ghana. In 1977, she was nominated for an Emmy for her role in Roots, the TV miniseries.  She also wrote nine children's books, 13 collections of poetry, four collections of essays, adapted I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for CBS in 1979, narrated the 1996 video, Elmo Saves Christmas, and complied a cookbook in 2004, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table.  Angelou spoke at least six languages and worked at one time as a newspaper editor in Egypt and Ghana.

She dedicated her 1993 essay collection, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, to Oprah Winfrey, who hosted grand birthday parties for Angelou.  Winfrey, who called Dr. Angelou her mentor, referred to her as "sister friend."  In 1997, Oprah's Book Club chose Angelou's The Heart of a Woman, the fourth of her memoirs.  In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, she circled back to the events that led her to begin her first book and dealt with the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965 and King in 1968. 

As professor, singer and dancer, Angelou's work spans several professions.  She wrote and delivered a poem at President Clinton's 1993 inaugural.  Her recording of that poem, On the Pulse of Morning, won a Grammy.  In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.

"I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine ... before she realizes she's reading," Angelou said.

Rest Peacefully Dr. Angelou - Thank you for all of your contributions to the world.

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