Maya Angelou, the memoirist and poet whose landmark book of 1969, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” — which describes in lyrical, unsparing prose her childhood in the Jim Crow South — was among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman to reach a wide general readership, died on Wednesday in her home. She was 86 and lived in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Her death was confirmed by her longtime literary agent, Helen Brann. No immediate cause of death had been determined, but Ms. Brann said Ms. Angelou had been in frail health for some time and had heart problems.
As well-known as she was for her memoirs, which eventually filled six volumes, Ms. Angelou very likely received her widest exposure on a chilly January day in 1993, when she delivered the inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the swearing-in of Bill Clinton, the nation’s 42nd president, who, like Ms. Angelou, had grown up poor in rural Arkansas.
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
Long before that day, as she recounted in “Caged Bird” and its five sequels, she had already been a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, single mother, magazine editor in Cairo, administrative assistant in Ghana, official of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and friend or associate of some of the most eminent black Americans of the mid-20th century, including James Baldwin, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Afterward (her six-volume memoir takes her only to the age of 40), Ms. Angelou (pronounced AHN-zhe-lo) was a Tony-nominated stage actress; college professor (she was for many years the Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem); ubiquitous presence on the lecture circuit; frequent guest on television shows, from “Oprah” to “Sesame Street”; and subject of a string of scholarly studies.
In February 2011, President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Throughout her writing, Ms. Angelou explored the concepts of personal identity and resilience through the multifaceted lens of race, sex, family, community and the collective past. As a whole, her work offered a cleareyed examination of the ways in which the socially marginalizing forces of racism and sexism played out at the level of the individual.
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,” Ms. Angelou wrote in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Hallmarks of Ms. Angelou’s prose style included a directness of voice that recalls African-American oral tradition and gives her work the quality of testimony. She was also intimately concerned with sensation, describing the world around her — be it Arkansas, San Francisco or the foreign cities in which she lived — with palpable feeling for its sights, sounds and smells.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published when Ms. Angelou was in her early 40s, spans only her first 17 years. But what powerfully formative years they were.
Marguerite Ann Johnson was born in St. Louis on April 4, 1928. (For years after Dr. King’s assassination, on April 4, 1968, Ms. Angelou did not celebrate her birthday.) Her dashing, defeated father, Bailey Johnson Sr., a Navy dietitian, “was a lonely person, searching relentlessly in bottles, under women’s skirts, in church work and lofty job titles for his ‘personal niche,’ lost before birth and unrecovered since,” Ms. Angelou wrote. “How maddening it was to have been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur.”
Her beautiful, volatile mother, Vivian Baxter, was variously a nurse, hotel owner and card dealer. As a girl, Ms. Angelou was known as Rita, Ritie or Maya, her older brother’s childhood nickname for her.
After her parents’ marriage ended, 3-year-old Maya was sent with her 4-year-old brother, Bailey, to live with their father’s mother in the tiny town of Stamps, Ark., which, she later wrote, “with its dust and hate and narrowness was as South as it was possible to get.”
Their grandmother, Annie Henderson, owned a general store “in the heart of the Negro area,” Ms. Angelou wrote. An upright woman known as Momma, “with her solid air packed around her like cotton,” she is a warm, stabilizing presence throughout “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
The children returned periodically to St. Louis to live with their mother. On one such occasion, when Maya was 7 or 8 (her age varies slightly across her memoirs, which employ the techniques of fiction to recount actual events), she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
She told her brother, who alerted the family, and the man was tried and convicted. Before he could begin serving his sentence, he was murdered — probably, Ms. Angelou wrote, by her uncles.
Believing that her words had brought about the death, Maya did not speak for the next five years. Her love of literature, as she later wrote, helped restore language to her.
As a teenager, now living with her mother in San Francisco, she studied dance and drama at the California Labor School and became the first black woman to work as a streetcar conductor there. At 16, after a casual liaison with a neighborhood youth, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. There the first book ends.
Reviewing “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in The New York Times,Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called it “a carefully wrought, simultaneously touching and comic memoir.”
The book — its title is a line from “Sympathy,” by the African-American poetPaul Laurence Dunbar — became a best seller, confounding the pervasive stereotype that black women’s lives were unworthy of memoir.
Our deepest condolences are with her entire family and friends.
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