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Literary legend Maya Angelou loved for the self she created

America is not a nation much given to honoring its poets, but Maya Angelou is an exception. Ms. Angelou, who was 86, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., after a period of failing health. Born in St. Louis in 1928 and raised amid poverty and racism there and in the tiny town of Stamps, Ark., Ms. Angelou became an international figure, friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, mentor of Oprah Winfrey and recipient of the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.

Many writers, though, achieve honors and befriend the famous. Ms. Angelou was known and loved by a remarkably broad and diverse number of Americans not just for the literature she created but for the self she created: Her life was a performance, and a splendid one.

I interviewed her in 2007 and met her briefly when she came to St. Petersburg for a sold-out appearance. Even on the telephone, she had enough charisma for a dozen people, her magnificent voice rolling like thunder. Backstage at the Mahaffey Theater, that voice was soft, and she sat in a wheelchair. But once she was on stage, even though she had to lean on the lectern most of the time, she held every person in the hall in the palm of her graceful, strong hand.

That public persona — confident, wise, witty and warm — was a singular creation by a girl born Marguerite Johnson and shuffled around for most of her childhood between her fierce mother, whom she called "a hurricane in its perfect power," and her old-school grandmother. Even her name was an act of creation — Maya from her brother's childhood nickname for her, Angelou a revised version of the surname of one of her several husbands.

One of the defining events of Ms. Angelou's life occurred when she was 8 years old and was raped by her mother's boyfriend. The girl told her brother, and her assailant was convicted — and then beaten to death, probably, Ms. Angelou wrote later, by her uncles. Stricken by the power of her voice to cause a man's death, she didn't speak for five years.

During those years of silence, though, she read voraciously and began to write. Writing was by no means Ms. Angelou's only job: at various times, she worked as a streetcar conductor and a madam, as a dancer and actor, as a civil rights activist, editor, film director and, since the 1980s, as the Reynolds Professor of American studies at Wake Forest University.

Writing was her passion, and it made her famous. She saw herself primarily as a poet, although she also wrote plays, screenplays, essays, children's books and cookbooks (and, for a while, Hallmark cards). In 1993, she became only the second poet to read a poem at the inauguration of an American president when she performed On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton's swearing-in.

Ms. Angelou is best known as a memoirist. The first of her seven volumes of memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recounts her life up to age 17, focusing on her rape and its aftermath. Published in 1969, it has been both an enduring bestseller and a perennial on the American Library Association's so-called "Banned Books List," an annual compilation of most frequently challenged books.

Her other six memoirs paint an adventurous, amazing life. Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas recounts her tour across Europe in the cast of Porgy and Bess in the 1950s, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes covers her life in Ghana in the 1960s, and A Song Flung Up to Heaven focuses on her friendships with Malcolm X and King and the impacts of their assassinations.

But I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is her most deeply powerful work. Years ago, I taught it in a literature class at the University of Tampa. The day we started discussing it, a young man — white, well-off, not all that interested in literature — urgently raised his hand. "This book," he began, then burst into tears. "I didn't know anybody's life could be like that."

That was one of Ms. Angelou's greatest gifts: opening doors between very different lives. Although her memoirs and much of her poetry are expressions of her own experiences, she could turn those experiences into something universal. When, in one of her best-known poems, she writes that, despite oppression, "still I rise," that "I" rings not as a single self but echoes Walt Whitman's all-embracing human "I," encompassing all races, genders and creeds. Silenced now, hers was a great American voice.


Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson

Born: April 4, 1928, in St. Louis

Died: May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Survivors: a son, Guy Johnson; a grandson; and two great-grandchildren

Literary legend Maya Angelou loved for the self she created 05/28/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014 1:18am]
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