Maya Angelou was a diva of American culture: an actress, singer, dancer and film director as well as an essayist and Pulitzer-Prize-nominated poet, whose mainstream magnetism led her to write verses for Hallmark and recite one of her poems at the 1993 inauguration of President Clinton.
Her most celebrated achievement, however, were the stories she told about herself in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (1969), the first in a series of bestselling memoirs. Universal in its themes yet compellingly particular in its details about being a black girl in a white world, it is a story of survival that exposed the ugliness as well as the beauty in a prodigiously inventive life.
A staple of high school and college reading lists, the book made Angelou a frequent target of parents and others concerned about its graphic descriptions of racism and sexual abuse. But it established her as a clear-eyed interpreter of the black experience with a message of hope and transcendence that resonated with a vast, multiracial audience.
"In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays," she told Paris Review in 1990, "I am saying that we may encounter many defeats — maybe it's imperative that we encounter the defeats — but we are much stronger than we appear to be, and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be."
Angelou, who wrote more than 35 books over five decades, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she had a lifetime appointment at Wake Forest University. Her death at 86 was announced by her son, Guy B. Johnson. He did not give a cause, but Angelou had a number of health problems in recent years.
FOR THE RECORD
May 28, 1:45 p.m.: An earlier version of a caption in a photo gallery accompanying this online obituary misidentified a woman in a photograph with Maya Angelou at the National Portrait Gallery. The second person from the right is Julianne Malveaux, not Eleanor Holmes Norton.
May 28, 10:37 a.m.: An earlier version of this online obituary stated that Maya Angelou wrote six memoirs. She wrote seven memoirs.
Noting that she was the reason his sister was named Maya, President Obama said in a statement Wednesday that Angelou filled many roles over a "remarkable" life. "But above all," he said, "she was a storyteller — and her greatest stories were true."
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis but moved to Long Beach with her parents shortly after her birth. When she was 3 and her brother, Bailey, was 4, her parents split up and her father sent them to live with his mother in Stamps, Ark., a "musty little town" that was so segregated, Angelou wrote, that "most Black children didn't really, absolutely know what whites looked like."
Her grandmother, who ran a general store, tried to make her granddaughter feel safe and loved, but Angelou saw herself as an ugly, tongue-tied misfit abandoned by her parents. She longed for blond hair and pretty dresses instead of black skin and clothes cast off by their white owners.
"If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat," she wrote.
After four years in Stamps, Angelou and her brother returned to their mother, Vivian Baxter, in St. Louis. Angelou worshiped Baxter, a beautiful, fiercely independent woman who supported herself in nontraditional occupations, including professional gambler and merchant seaman.
"To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power," Angelou would later write. "Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow."
Baxter's boyfriend lived with them. Angelou identified him as Mr. Freeman, a "big brown bear" who seldom spoke to the children. One Saturday when her mother was away, he raped her. Freeman was tried and convicted, but before he could serve his sentence he was found beaten to death.
His murder shocked the 8-year-old Angelou into silence. Because she had told on him and later testified at his trial, "I thought if I spoke I could kill anyone," she said years later.
She and Bailey were sent back to their grandmother in Stamps where, for the next five years, she spoke to no one except her brother. She might have clung to muteness much longer if not for the intervention of a woman in town named Bertha Flowers, described by Angelou as "the aristocrat of Black Stamps."
Flowers knew the silent girl read voraciously but, as she told her over tea and cookies one afternoon, words "mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning."