Maya Angelou, a modern Renaissance woman who survived the harshest of childhoods to become a force on stage, screen, the printed page and the inaugural dais, died Wednesday. She was 86.
Angelou’s son, Guy B. Johnson, said the writer died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had been a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University since 1982.
The loss of Angelou, whose status as an American icon was unquestioned, resonated deeply with many Hall County residents.
“Maya Angelou’s writings and acts of courage have and continue to inspire me, thereby allowing me to inspire future generations to dream and have the courage to implement their dreams in spite of the many obstacles that are certain to confront them,” said Pamela Stokes, a board member of the Newtown Florist Club in Gainesville.
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 worked 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 1969 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.
“She dealt with women’s issues that were very important,” said Adrian Mixson, director of the Hall County Library System. “To her credit, she took on some very difficult, challenging themes.”
Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until the publication of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a book occasionally attacked for its content.
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.
“’I thought that it was a mild book. There’s no profanity,” Angelou told The Associated Press. “It speaks about surviving, and it really doesn’t make ogres of many people. I was shocked to find there were people who really wanted it banned, and I still believe people who are against the book have never read the book.”
But the very literature that was once censored by schools and libraries is now celebrated, a testament to Angelou’s undaunted spirit.
“I’m sure you’ll find her this time next century,” Mixson said.
In 1993, Angelou was a sensation reading her cautiously hopeful “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. Her confident performance openly delighted Clinton and made the poem a best-seller.
The poem was a favorite of Traci McBride, a Hall County educator with the good fortune to have met Angelou.
Angelou gave the keynote address at McBride’s graduation from Kennesaw College (now Kennesaw State University).
“I have no idea that day what she said,” McBride said. “I just remember sitting there among the graduates being mesmerized.”
A few years later, Angelou made an appearance at an Atlanta area bookstore to sign copies of the poem she wrote for Clinton’s inauguration.
McBride waited in line for over three hours to get Angelou’s autograph.
When McBride’s turn finally came, Angelou asked her, “What do you do, young lady?”
McBride told Angelou she was an English teacher at West Hall High School.
“And then, in her very deep, raspy voice that was so characteristic of her, she said, ‘Thank you for teaching America’s children,’” McBride said. “I just sort of melted.”
Angelou seemed to have that effect on everyone who came into her presence. She was revered, perhaps, like no other living author. But the force of her soul spread well beyond literature and into the very heart of American culture. “She gave you words of courage and inspiration and hope,” said Phyllis Brewer, president of the Gainesville-Hall County chapter of the NAACP. “She gave you words to live by. She was just a phenomenal woman and we all loved her.”
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. Angelou 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 the 1977 miniseries “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 speak 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. By her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller.
Writing on The Times’ Facebook page, Bogart resident Kathryn Parham said, “Being a disabled person, Maya Angelou helped me to see beyond my disabilities and to see there are ways I still can help people. I am so happy Ms. Angelou was a part of my life and so many others while she was here with us on this earth.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.