Maya Angelou, a child of the Jim Crow South who rose to international prominence as a writer known for her frank chronicles of personal history and a performer instantly identified by her regal presence and rich, honeyed voice, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86.
Her literary agent, Helen Brann, confirmed the death but said she did not know the immediate cause. Angelou had heart ailments and had been in declining health for years.
She established her literary reputation in 1970 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir detailing the racism and abuse she endured during her harrowing childhood.
From her desperate early years, Angelou gradually moved into nightclub dancing and from there began a career in the arts that spanned more than 60 years. She sang cabaret and calypso, danced with Alvin Ailey, acted on Broadway, directed for film and television and wrote more than 30 books, including poetry, essays and, responding to the public’s appetite for her life story, six autobiographies.
She won three Grammy Awards for spoken-word recordings of her poetry and prose and was invited by President-elect Bill Clinton to read an original poem at his first inauguration in 1993, making her only the second poet in history, after Robert Frost, to be so honored.
Her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, spoke of a hope that the country’s diverse people would find new unity after chapters in American history of oppression and division.
Lift up your eyes upon /The day breaking for you, she said as the nation watched. Give birth again / To the dream.
It was her story of personal transformation in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that launched Angelou’s career and brought her wide recognition as a symbol of strength overcoming struggle.
She brought an understanding of the dilemmas and dangers and exhilarations of black womanhood more to the fore than almost any autobiographer before her time, said Arnold Rampersad, a literary critic and professor emeritus of English at Stanford University.
She challenged assumptions about what was possible for a poor black girl from the South, and she emerged as a figure of courage, honesty and grace.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings focused on growing up in her grandmother’s care in segregated Stamps, Arkansas, and on her rape by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7, a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.
The book, which came at the leading edge of a renaissance in literature by black female writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, traces the young Angelou’s effort to recover her voice and a sense of control over her body and her life, beginning with her recitation of A Tale of Two Cities at the behest of a family friend.
Enduringly popular, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been translated into 17 languages, sold more than 1 million copies and still appears on high school and college reading lists.
None of her poetry or prose brought the same acclaim as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but in some sense, Angelou existed in a realm untouched by criticism. She developed a devoted group of readers who adored her and were drawn to her poems, which featured accessible rhymes and themes of cultivating love, conquering injustice and speaking out of silence. Her ability to reach a mass audience, including people who didn’t consider themselves poetry readers, set her apart. A fixture on the lecture circuit and popular guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, her personal story became a platform for her message of renewal and hope.