Renowned poet Maya Angelou, a wordsmith par excellence, was found dead Wednesday morning at the age of 86, according to reports from her hometown of Winston-Salem. The author, who has penned tomes of award-winning poems and essays, was found by her caregiver in her home, Allen Joines, the mayor of Winston-Salem told news sources. She is survived by her son, Guy Johnson, a poet and novelist, who is her only immediate survivor.
Angelou, who dropped out of high school, went on to become a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She told USA Today in 2007 that she was a self-taught, self-created person, who defied labels and titles. Angelou, who is best known for the first of her six memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), has had multiple careers through her life. Besides being a writer, she has worked as an actress, singer, dancer, playwright, composer and director. At some point in her early life, she also worked as an editor in Egypt, and a music and drama school teacher in Ghana, ran a brothel, and was the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
As evidenced by her career and variety of professions, Angelou lived a life of many achievements but also battled many lows. Her childhood was fraught with tensions and losses. Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Angelou was only three when her parents got divorced, and she was sent to live with her mother in the small segregated town of Stamps in Arkansas. At the age of seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, which sent her into years of shocked silence during which she only communicated with her older brother. She emerged from the years of silence with words that were poetic and scathing in their portrayal of race relations in America. Angelou became an unwed mother at the young age of 17. Despite the grimness of her childhood and the lack of education, her perseverance and drive to learn earned her many honorary degrees from colleges all across the world.
Angelou, a wordsmith par excellence, received her most recent award at the National Book Awards in New York in November 2013 for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. After being introduced by her friend, Toni Morrison, a renowned author in her own right, Angelou told the ballroom full of writing and publishing professionals that they were the rainbow to her clouds. To much cheering, she added, that “easy reading is damn hard writing.” In reviewing her career, she said, “For over 40 years, I have tried to tell the truth as I understand it.”
Her journey of truth resulted in a mountain of writing. Besides her memoirs, Angelou has penned poems such as Pulse of the Morning, which won a Grammy Award, nine children’s books, 13 collections of poetry, four collections of essays, and wrote short poems for Hallmark’s line of cards and gift items. As Angelou said, the essence of every writer is his or her book just as every singer is the song and the dancer is the dance.
A beloved teacher, a feted writer and a world famous poet, Angelou was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor in 2011 by President Barack Obama. Of her achievements, the six-foot-tall writer said, “Look where we’ve all come from…coming out of darkness, moving toward the light…It is a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.” The ebullient Angelou, a wordsmith par excellence, has left this world bereft of a writer, whose words have been said to have a beauty so deep that they defy description.
By Monalisa Gangopadhyay