Dr. Maya Angelou, a well-known civil right activist, an actress and an award- winning poet and writer, died Wednesday morning inside her Winston Salem, N.C., home.
The 86-year-old who was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, suffered from heart problems according to her literary agent, Helen Brann, told the New York Times. Less than a week ago, Angelou said she would not attend the 2014 MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon, indicating it was because of “health reasons.”
Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri. However, she was sent off along with her brother to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, after the divorced of their parents. Angelou did not have an easy upbringing, for she undergone racial discrimination in Stamps. At the age of seven, she was sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend while visiting her in Chicago. Angelou was overwhelmed with guilt when she found out an uncle had killed her attacker. She went mute for five years.
She began speaking again at the age of 13, rejoining her mother in San Francisco. She later attended Mission High School and won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor school. Although it was short-lived, Angelou had drop out of school. During her senior year, she became pregnant but was still able to graduate before giving birth to her son, Guy Johnson. A single mother, who left home in her late teens, supported her son by working as a waitress and a cook but not once did she disregard her passion for dance, music, performance and poetry.
In 1952, Angelou married Greek sailor, Anastasios Angelopulos. When she started her career as a nightclub singer, she named herself Maya Angelou, “Maya” was the name her brother Bailey gave her after reading a book about the Maya Indians, and “Angelou”, was a form of her husband’s name. Despite the failure of her marriage, her performing career, on the contrary, thrived. She toured in Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess for two years, 1954 and 1955; she danced with Alvin Ailey on television, studied modern dance with Martha Graham, and even recorded her first record album, Calypso Lady in 1957.
In New York, Angelou met South African Civil rights activist Vusumzi Make, she fell in love with him. The couple moved with Angelou’s son, to Cairo, Egypt. There, Angelou became an editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. Unfortunately, Angelou and her son Guy, did not stay there for too long. They later moved to Ghana. In Ghana, Angelou was an instructor and assistant administrator at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She also worked as a feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting company. Angelou had even met with African American activist, Malcolm X, while he was visiting Ghana. Both instantaneously shared an incredible bond with one another.
Because Angelou traveled tremendously and lived overseas, she became multilingual. She mastered Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, and a West African language, Fanti.
Coming back to the U.S in 1964, Angelou thought that she would be helping Malcolm X with his new Organization of African American Unity. But, that idea came into an abrupt halt. Malcolm X was assassinated and so did his plans. Angelou, still remained active during the Civil Rights Movement, and even worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had entreated that Angelou should serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Just like Malcolm, Dr. King, was also assassinated. King’s assassination ironically fell on Angelou’s birthday in 1968, which left her heart broken. However, Angelou was able to find comfort in her writings. She wrote her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which was published in 1970. The book was very personal, Angelou wrote about her childhood in Arkansas, including her childhood rape to the birth of her son. Moreover, Angelou wrote many fiction and nonfiction stories, more than 30 bestselling titles.
Angelou also wrote the screenplay for the film Georgia, Georgia (1972). The screenplay was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Apart from that, she continued to appear on both television and films, such as, Poetic Justice (1993) Roots (1977) and Madea’s Family Reunion (2006).
In 2000, Angelou was honored with the Presidential Medal of the Arts however, the year 2008, was an exceptional year for Angelou. It was the year she received the Ford’s Theater Lincoln Medal, narrated the documentary film The Black Candle and published a book of inspirations and guidance for young women, Letter to My Daughter. In 2011, President Obama, America’s first Black president, awarded Angelou a civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. However, this was not Angelou’s first encounter associating with American presidents. In 1993, she read her poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” during former President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration which was broadcast live and globally.
Angelou faced many obstacles but still was able to accomplish many things. Did she ever think she was going to get this far, leaving an impact on many people lives, such as Oprah Winfrey, President Obama, former president Bill Clinton and overall the general public? Perhaps, she did know. In her 20’s the public icon, met Billie Holiday, who told her, “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.” Angelou is a three time Grammy winner who was also nominated for a Tony, a Pulitzer, and an Emmy for her role in the 1977 miniseries “roots.”
The 86 year-old Renaissance woman, had one son, Guy Johnson, and lived in North Carolina in an 18-room house and taught American studies at Wake Forest University.