Poet Maya Angelou, 86, "an epic life"

President Obama kisses Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom at the White House. The author and poet, who was a longtime professor at Wake Forest University, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., at age 86.
President Obama kisses Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom at the White House. The author and poet, who was a longtime professor at Wake Forest University, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., at age 86. (CHARLES DHARAPAK / AP)
Posted: May 30, 2014

She surprised people. She was tall, more than six feet. Her voice - sonorous, precise, pleased at its own beauty - surprised, too, almost as much as the words it spoke.

Poet, memoirist, and public voice Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday at age 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., made a life of escaping expectations.

"She lived an epic life," said poet and publisher Lamont B. Steptoe, "and her success was well-deserved for what she went through."

At a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Nutter said, "I've been a fan and admirer of hers for a long, long time . . . . She spoke to so many different people through poems."

Her writings - especially her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - gave permission to generations of writers of all genders and cultures to explore their lives and hearts truthfully and without apology. In poems such as "Still I Rise," copied into many a diary and notebook, she celebrated and encouraged the battered heart.

"When I ask students to name a living poet," says Upper Darby poet and teacher Luke Stromberg, "if they are able to name any, they name Maya Angelou. . . . Since I've been teaching, I've read multiple papers about 'Still I Rise' or Caged Bird each semester."

Tamara Oakman, a poet living in Germantown, said, "As a black woman and a poet, I wouldn't be what I am without her. She paved the way."

Oakman is eloquent on what Dr. Angelou means to millions: "In poems like 'Phenomenal Woman,' she uplifted the black woman. She spoke of our bodies as bodies of beauty and our color as a color of beauty. She made us beautiful to the rest of the world, and made us beautiful to ourselves."

Born in St. Louis in 1928, Marguerite Ann Johnson was propelled early into harsh realities.

Her parents split when she was 3, and she was sent, famously, by train alone with her brother to live with a grandmother in Stamps, Ark. By age 8, she was back with her mother, now in Oakland, Calif. Marguerite was raped at 7 or 8 and later said she did not speak for years afterward. She studied dance and drama in high school - and gave birth only three weeks after graduation. She raised the child by herself. That child, the writer Guy Johnson, is her only surviving family member.

Her next years were itinerant and full. She kept the till for a brothel, was a cable-car conductor at 14 in San Francisco (evidently the system's first black conductor), and also a journalist.

She was a nightclub dancer, part of a modern dance team with young Alvin Ailey, and also part of a touring company of Porgy and Bess. She even recorded an album, Miss Calypso, in 1957.

During the social and literary upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, she worked with prominent figures such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin.

Her writing career was made in 1969, with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Never a college student, she wound up with more than 30 honorary degrees (she asked to be called "Doctor Angelou") and a longtime professorship at Wake Forest University.

Her public prominence was unusual in a country that pays little heed to its poets.

She commented on the events of the day - often unpredictably.

After Clarence Thomas was nominated by President George H.W. Bush for the Supreme Court, Dr. Angelou wrote an impassioned op-ed piece for the New York Times.

"Because Clarence Thomas has been poor, has been nearly suffocated by the acrid odor of racial discrimination, is intelligent, well trained, black and young enough to be won over again," she wrote, "I support him."

Commissioned to read at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, she delivered "On the Pulse of Morning."

There had - and has - never been such a flamboyant and bracing performance in that august role. ("She was a queen, a diva," said Steptoe.) Among its memorable lines:

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,

Need not be lived again.

Nutter, who was there, said, "I have very much seared in my own personal memory" the poem, the presentation, and the performance.

"It really gave a heightened awareness to American poetry," said Steptoe, "and to African American poetry."

It was entertaining to gauge the response to "Pulse" in the political community (some loved it; some called it "divisive") and the academic community (some loved it; some didn't). But it remains a watershed - and a sign of the divide between those for whom it was life-changing (Oakman: "She held out an alternative to simply drowning in the misery") and those who found it too challenging or too public.

Dr. Angelou was a public figure down to the end. In a recent issue of American Currentsee, she commented on Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, banned from the NBA for racist remarks. She said the reaction was a sign of progress: "But do you realize that this man has been banned? With all of his money and all of his history and the white skin which covers his whole body."

She would have loved the celebration of her Wednesday across social media. A dedicated presence on Twitter, Dr. Angelou posted her final tweet on May 23:

"Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God."


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

Inquirer staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.

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