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The passing of Maya Angelou - PHENOMENAL WOMAN

Published: 
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
c, the poet and author who died yesterday at the age of 86. AP PHOTO

Maya Angelou, a poet and author who rose from poverty, segregation and the harshest of childhoods to become a force on stage, screen and the printed page, has died. She was 86.

 

Angelou died yesterday morning at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, her son, Guy B Johnson, said in a statement. The 86-year-old had been a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University since 1982.

 

“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace,” Johnson said.

 

Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, Angelou defied all probability and category, becoming one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author and thriving in virtually every artistic medium. The young single mother who performed at strip clubs to earn a living 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.

 

An actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s, she broke through as an author in 1970 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became standard (and occasionally censored) reading, and was the first of a multipart autobiography that continued through the decades. In 1993, she was a sensation reading her cautiously hopeful On the Pulse of the Morning at former President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. For former President George W Bush, she read another poem, Amazing Peace, at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House.

 

She remained close enough to the Clintons that in 2008 she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy over the ultimately successful run of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama.

 

But a few days before Obama’s inauguration, she was clearly overjoyed. She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she would be watching it on television “somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know.”

 

Obama said her death has dimmed “one of the brightest lights of our time.”

 

Angelou was a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, whom she befriended when Winfrey was still a local television reporter, and often appeared on her friend’s talk show programme. She mastered several languages and published not just poetry, but advice books, cookbooks and children’s stories. She wrote music, plays and screenplays and never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.

 

Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother. She was smart and fresh to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn’t speak at all: At age seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t speak for years. She learned by reading, and listening.

 

At age nine, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel, was married (to Enistasious Tosh Angelos, her first of three husbands) and then divorced. 

 

After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage (“Maya” was a childhood nickname), she toured in Porgy and Bess and Jean Genet’s The Blacks and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a co-ordinator for the civil rights group Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination, in 1965.

 

Angelou’s memoir was occasionally attacked, for seemingly opposite reasons. In a 1999 essay in Harper’s, author Francine Prose criticised Caged Bird as “manipulative” melodrama. Meanwhile, Angelou’s passages about her rape and teen pregnancy have made it a perennial on the American Library Association’s list of works that draw complaints from parents and educators.

 

Angelou appeared on several TV programmes, notably the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her appearance in the play Look Away. She directed the film Down in the Delta, about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta. She won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community. (AP) 

 

 

 

TRIBUTES TO MAYA

 

 

Maya Angelou was a Black icon who was revered throughout the African diaspora. For many Trinidadians, particularly those who lived abroad, she was a voice of reason. 

 

Chicago-based Trinidadian blogger Patrice Grell Yursik, known to her followers worldwide as Afrobella, said it is difficult to imagine a world without Maya Angelou. 

 

“To so many of us she seemed timeless and eternal, a monument of a human being. Larger than life. To imagine a world without Maya Angelou would be like imagining a world without Mount Rushmore, the giant sequoias, leatherback turtles or Maracas Beach,” Yursik said. 

 

“It just felt like she would always be there, to appear on television with that distinctive voice and laugh, to offer a quote that would lift us up and guide us through life. On May 28, 2014, we woke up to a new world. A world where we must speak of Maya Angelou in the past tense; where we cry at our keyboards as we write heartfelt tributes and confess what she meant to us.

 

“To me, she symbolised the grandmother I never had in real life. She offered an unceasing source of wisdom through all stages of being. She branded herself as a symbol of beauty in its purest, most genuine form. For generations of us around the world, hers would be the first poems to grip our tender hearts and give us fierce hope for our future as women. Maya Angelou taught me that I didn’t have to be ‘cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size’ but with confidence, backbone and belief in myself I could also be a ‘Phenomenal Woman.’” 

 

Yursik, whose blog Afrobella.com is rated as one of the top beauty blogs for women of colour was grateful for Angelou’s contribution. 

 

Trinidadian academic Dr Kevin Browne of Syracuse University told T&T Guardian he remembered when Angelou read her poem at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. He felt she was a profoundly iconic woman. 

 

“What I knew of Maya Angelou was that every phenomenal woman I’ve met has cited Maya as her inspiration,” Dr Browne said. “I’ve met a lot of these women and this has to be an indication of how profoundly she affected black woman and womanhood as a whole.”

 

Browne remarked that his affinity to Angelou was their shared star sign of Aries. 

 

“I look at her work in calypso and at the time when she sang Miss Calypso. 

 

“Lots of people don’t know she’s was a calpsonian and I think she did what a true calypsonian was supposed to do. That is to shake the consciousness, to upturn our assumptions of our ever day life. 

 

Browne said he was inspired by Angelou’s “towering voice, life and ethos.”

 

“She showed us the kind of aspirations we can have as a people. She’s inspirational on any level—artistic, political or otherwise.”

 

Browne, who is in T&T on a sabbatical and to launch his new book, said Angelou’s books should form part of the American literary canon. “Maya Angelou’s work is evidence of her immortality.” 

 

London-based actress Martina Laird said of Angelou on Facebook, “A great soul, who lived every drop of each moment of life. A woman who in her life was all that a woman can be.” 

 

Roslyn Carrington said: “Maya Angelou had the kind of vibrant, resonant, uncompromising voice that resonates in my head every time I hear her name. I am constantly amazed at the kind of strength she has shown, rising from the abuse and trials of her youth, but it convinces me that the worst circumstances are a crucible in which the best metals are tested, shaped and polished.”