By Robert Simonson
28 May 2014
Ms. Angelou was arguably the best-known poet and memoirist of her generation. She first earned widespread acclaim with the publication of her memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," brought out in 1969. The book told of her life up until the age of 17, growing up among rampant racism and crippling poverty in rural Arkansas, and addressed traumatic incidents such as an instance of childhood rape, and the subsequent murder of her attacker. The memoir is often characterized as being as much a work of literature as it is an autobiography, and is considered a milestone in African-American writings. The writer Julian Mayfield called it "a work of art that eludes description." The book was nominated for a National Book Award and became a bestseller.
She followed up that success with six successive works of autobiography, published between 1974 and 2013. They include "Gather Together in My Name," "Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas," "The Heart of a Woman," "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes," "A Song Flung Up to Heaven" and "Mom & Me & Mom." All were edited by her longtime editor, Robert Loomis at Random House, who retired in 2011. The two were brought together by her good friend, the novelist James Baldwin.
When Bill Clinton was inaugurated as President in 1993, he selected his fellow native-Arkansan Ms. Angelou to compose and recite a poem for the occasion. The reading of that poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," was witnessed by millions, and the event remains closely identified with Ms. Angelou's public persona.
Her connection to the stage and performing was forged early on. She danced and sang Calypso music in clubs in San Francisco. She also teamed up with a young Alvin Ailey in an act called Al and Rita. (It was at this time she adopted the stage name of Maya Angelou, discarding her given name, Marguerite Ann Johnson.) She was successful enough to have recorded an album. In the mid-50s, she toured Europe in a production of Porgy and Bess.
By the late '50s, she had moved to New York and begun concentrating on writing. In 1961, she performed in the legendary Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Blacks, acting alongside the young James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Brown, Louis Gossett and Cicely Tyson.
After meeting the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, she moved with her son to Cairo, where she edited an English-language newspaper. From there, she moved to Ghana, where she stayed until 1965, working at the University of Ghana, editing The African Review and performing at Ghana's National Theatre.
While in Ghana, she met and befriended Malcolm X. She returned to the U.S. to work with him, and helped him form the Organization of Afro-American Unity, but he was assassinated soon after. History cruelly repeated itself when Martin Luther King Jr., shortly after asking Angelou to organize a march in 1968, was also assassinated. The two deaths affected Ms. Angelou deeply and left her depressed. (Dr. King was killed on April 4, which was her date of birth in 1928. For years afterward, she refused to celebrate her birthday.) Not long after, however, Loomis encouraged her to try her hand at telling her own story in book form.
She starred in a Jerome Kilty play, Look Away, about Mary Todd Lincoln's stay in a mental asylum, on Broadway in 1972. Co-starring Geraldine Page and directed by Rip Torn, it closed quickly. Nonetheless, her performance was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973.
She made a notable appearance on the small screen in 1977 when she played Kunta Kinte's grandmother in the widely viewed mini-series "Roots."
Her many volumes of poetry include "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'for I Die," "And Still I Rise," "Now Sheba Sings the Song," "I Shall Not Be Moved" and "Phenomenal Women." Her plays include Cabaret for Freedom, The Least of These, Getting' Up Stayed on My Mind, Sophocles, Ajax and And Still I Rise. She also wrote two cookbooks.