She bought her clothes for their colors in secondhand shops — "beautiful reds and oranges, and greens and pinks, and teals and turquoise" — and wore them in happy mismatch. She danced feathers and a few sequins to Alvin Ailey's leopard print G-string — shaking everything she had. She spoke French, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Fanti and easily (mesmerizingly) recited John Donne, William Shakespeare, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Allan Poe, Langston Hughes, even Publius Terentius Afer, an African slave born nearly 200 years before Christ.
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She worked the Melrose Record Shop selling John Lee Hooker and Charlie Parker; sang her heart out at the Purple Onion; toured Europe as the premier dancer in "Porgy and Bess"; lived in a houseboat commune with "an icthyologist, a musician, a wife, and an inventor"; and once described her life, to a rapt Merv Griffin, as one in which she'd been "obliged to be clever, to dance quickly, to edge-walk."
She brought poetic intimacy to the political; compassion to the margins; fervor to the campaigns of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Barack Obama; and smothered chicken, smoked pork chops and spoon bread to tables wrapped by friends.
She was raped as a child by her mother's boyfriend, impregnated at 16 by an acquaintance, married to a Greek who did not cherish her well, consoled by a bartender when she asked if any man would have her again. And yet: love — bold, outrageous, graceful, ecstatic — was her sure stance, the conclusion she had drawn, the lesson she passed on.
Her famous name — Maya Angelou — came to her in pieces, an adaptation of her given and married name, for she'd been born Marguerite Annie Johnson. Her style was 6-feet proud, up until her death on May 28 at age 86. She had advice for us:
"Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud."
"Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity."
She had "an attitude of gratitude." She loved that son of hers, and oh, that woman: She could laugh.
Writer. Actor. Singer. Dancer. Activist. Cook. Historian. Educator. First African-American female cable car conductor. U.S. poet laureate. Grammy Award winner. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. Angelou has been given many titles. But in terms of pure literature, we will perhaps remember best the ways she electrified sound. How she pointed to a place beyond her shoulder, beyond the shimmer of sky, as she read:
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's miraculously clear