A bouquet and a magazine showing Maya Angelou on the cover are placed outside a gate at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. She died Wednesday at age 86.
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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Maya Angelou lived many lives in a long, illustrious life. Consider this list: poet, memorist, playwright, musician, actor, producer, cable car conductor, waitress, cook, editor of an English language paper in Egypt, cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, three-time Grammy winner, Pulitzer Prize nominee, calypso dancer, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, mentor to Oprah Winfrey and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
She died Wednesday at 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. The cause of death was not given.
Plaudits and accolades poured forth for Ms. Angelou, who first achieved widespread fame almost 45 years ago with the first of seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, about her life up to age 17, a harrowing childhood in the Jim Crow South.
Shockingly candid for its time, it’s a story of parental abandonment, rape by her mother’s boyfriend, homelessness, and single teen motherhood, it became an international best-seller and is a staple on most student reading lists, not to mention on the American Library Association’s own list of works that earns the most complaints from parents and educators.
After the man who raped her was convicted, and later beaten to death — it is believed, by Ms. Angelou’s uncles — she didn’t speak for many years.
That book was just one in a prolific writer and artist’s career spanning half a century: She would publish numerous volumes of poetry, essays, and her credits would include plays, movies, television shows and music albums.
Ms. Angelou defied all probability, becoming one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author and thriving in many artistic mediums.
The young single mother who worked at strip clubs later wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history.
The childhood victim of rape wrote a million-selling memoir, befriended Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and performed on stages around the world.
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She sang, acted on Broadway, directed for film and television, and wrote more than 30 books.
She won three Grammy Awards for spoken-word recordings of her poetry and prose and was invited by President-elect Bill Clinton to read an original poem at his first inauguration in 1993, making her only the second poet in history, after Robert Frost, to be so honored.
Her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” spoke of a hope that the country’s diverse people would find new unity.
For President George W. Bush, she read “Amazing Peace,” at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House.
In 2011, President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama described Ms. Angelou as “a truly phenomenal woman” and his sister Maya’s namesake.
“A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking — but 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,” Mr. Obama said.
She received an Emmy nomination for her acting in 1977’s miniseries Roots.
In 2002, she lent her name and verse to a line of Hallmark greeting cards and other products.
“I want my work read,” she told The Washington Post at the time.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis to Bailey Johnson, a dietitian, and Vivian Johnson, a card dealer and boardinghouse proprietor. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and sent her to Arkansas with her brother Bailey — who called her “My,” “Mine,” and finally “Maya.”
In 1940, she and Bailey moved to California to live with their mother. Ms. Angelou graduated from Mission High School in San Francisco and took evening drama and dance classes. Concerned she might be a lesbian and wanting to prove she was “normal,” she propositioned a young man. After that encounter, she became pregnant at age 16 with Clyde “Guy” Johnson, her only child.
She spent the next several years bouncing between jobs, scraping by first as a streetcar conductor and cook. She said she also fell in love with a man who worked as a pimp, which led her to prostitution and then a stint as a madam.
Ever more desperate, she sold stolen clothes and flirted with drugs.
She married and divorced several times and moved many, many times.
Ms. Angelou spoke locally several times.
In Lima, Ohio in 1997, she drew a sellout crowd of 1,700 people at the Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center.
Four years earlier, she spoke at the University of Toledo for the culminating event of Toledo’s Black History Month celebrations. The event drew more than 4,000.
In 1984, she spoke at Bowling Green State University.
In her last days, Ms. Angelou was frail, but lucid until the end.
“Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension,” said her son Guy Johnson, in a statement. “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.”
The Blade’s news services contributed to this report. The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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