Maya Angelou was gratified, but not surprised by her extraordinary fortune.
"I'm not modest," she told The Associated Press in 2013. "I have no modesty. Modesty is a learned behavior. But I do pray for humility, because humility comes from the inside out."
Her story awed millions. The young single mother who worked at strip clubs to earn a living later danced and sang on stages around the world. A black woman born poor wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history. A childhood victim of rape, shamed into silence, eventually told her story through one of the most widely read memoirs of the past few decades.
Angelou, a Renaissance woman and cultural pioneer, died on May 28 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.
Angelou had been set to appear this week at the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon, but canceled in recent days citing an unspecified illness.
Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, she was unforgettable whether encountered through sight, sound or the printed word. She was an actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s and broke through as an author in 1970 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became standard (and occasionally censored) reading and made Angelou one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success. Caged Bird was the start of a multipart autobiography that continued through the decades and captured a life of hopeless obscurity and triumphant, kaleidoscopic fame.
The world was watching in 1993 when she read her cautiously hopeful "On the Pulse of the Morning" at President Bill Clinton's first inauguration. Her confident performance openly delighted Clinton and made publishing history by making a poem a best-seller, if not a critical favorite.
Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, recalled that day: “I was only 19 years old and still very much in the closet, but Maya Angelou’s greatest gift was the ability to reach each and every person with her wisdom, the beauty of her language, and her simple insistence upon a better and more just world.”
Angelou was a longtime friend to the LGBT community and to HRC, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, in particular. As far back as 2000, she spoke at an HRC dinner in Atlanta. Her books, poems, speeches and essays have long been — and doubtless will continue to be—a source of inspiration for LGBT people.
Addressing an audience in Florida in 1996, Angelou said, “I am gay. I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.”
Griffin said, “Angelou has said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you. LGBT people know this truth well — and it is part of why so many in our community have looked to her as a hero for so long. For those of us whom Angelou inspired to tell our own stories and live our own truths, we will always miss her indispensible voice.”
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said: “Rest In Peace Maya Angelou; your life will forever continue to inspire us and all LGBTQ activists in our work for social justice for all.”
The earliest reactions to Angelou’s death came via social media, where her fans — famous and not — shared remembrances and quoted the writer’s words that meant most to them.
“May you rest eternally in peace” was the simple message shared by the NAACP.
Angelou called herself a poet, in love with the "sound of language," "the music in language," as she explained to The Associated Press in 2013. But she lived so many lives. She was a wonder to Toni Morrison, who marveled at Angelou's freedom from inhibition, her willingness to celebrate her own achievements. She 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 program. She mastered several languages and published not just poetry, but advice books, cookbooks and children's stories. She wrote music, plays and screenplays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in "Roots," and never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.
Her very name as an adult was a reinvention. 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 7, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend and didn't talk for years. She learned by reading, and listening.
At age 9, 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, and then divorced. But by her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She also spent a few days with Billie Holiday."
After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage ("Maya" was a childhood nickname, "Angelou" a variation of her husband's name), she toured in Porgy and Bess and Jean Genet's The Blacks and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Nelson Mandela, a longtime friend; and Malcolm X, to whom she remained close until his assassination, in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organize the Poor People's March in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou's 40th birthday.
Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which might not have happened if James Baldwin hadn't persuaded Angelou, still grieving over King's death, to attend a party at Jules Feiffer's house. Feiffer was so taken by Angelou that he mentioned her to Random House editor Bob Loomis, who persuaded her to write a book by daring her into it, saying that it was "nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature."
"Well, maybe I will try it," Angelou responded. "I don't know how it will turn out. But I can try."
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