Maya Angelou: Never underestimate the people you meet

05/28/2014 11:33 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Poet and performer Maya Angelou, who inspired and emboldened several generations in the United States and around the world with her brave words, stirring cadences and velvety voice, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The 86-year-old Angelou was revered for her commitment to civil rights and for the most famous of several memoirs, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” One of her highest-profile moments came in January 1993 when she delivered “On the Pulse of Morning,” the inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton.

Her agent said Wednesday that Angelou had been frail and suffered from heart problems. A statement from her family said she passed quietly at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Survivors include her son, Guy Johnson, three grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

An American original, Angelou led many professional lives, including as actress, director, singer, dancer, activist and professor. She was once a San Francisco cable car conductor, the city’s first African-American female driver. She made television appearances on “Oprah” and “Sesame Street” and hosted a PBS series.

In a February 2011 ceremony, President Barack Obama presented Angelou with the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Obama said in a statement Wednesday, “Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman,” adding, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”

“A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking — but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves,” Obama said.

Angelou was still touring, reading and performing, and one of her stops was to be Kansas City for a talk June 10 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

In an interview with The Star last week about that event, the St. Louis-born Angelou said she hadn’t decided the topics she would cover, only that they could be many and varied.

“Courage and love and laughter and the moon and cooking,” Angelou said.

Definitely courage.

“I think courage is the most important of all the virtues,” Angelou said. “Without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can be anything erratically — generous, kind. Without courage, people can shame you and blame you.”

Angelou wrote more than 30 books and over the years was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees, although she never attended college. She was a longtime professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

The 1969 “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” became an international bestseller. The book, published when Angelou was in her early 40s, broke ground for its stark portrayal of racism and personal trauma — and its wide appeal.

“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,” Angelou wrote in the memoir.

Angelou hadn’t stopped writing. She told The Star she was working on a book to be titled “Encounters.” It was not an autobiography but about people she had met and the surprising ways they influenced her.

“There are people you will meet once and never again,” she said, “but don’t underestimate anything. You meet somebody on the bus or at the supermarket, and you think they will never have any impact on your life. But don’t underestimate.”

Angelou told The Star she was cutting back her speaking engagements, but she looked forward to coming to Kansas City. She said she never tired of learning and teaching, and she always recalled something her grandmother told her:

“When you get, give. When you learn, teach.”

Angelou had collaborated with Kansas City-based Hallmark on several ventures, including a line of cards and gift products, and she appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production “The Runaway.” She hosted “The Spirit Table” on the Hallmark Channel.

“I like Hallmark,” she told The Star. “I like the way they treated me.”

Donald J. Hall Jr., the company’s president and CEO, said that with Angelou’s death, Hallmark lost a special friend.

“She was one of the most powerful voices of our time and has left the world an incomparable legacy through her writing, teaching and the way she lived her life,” Hall said. “It was a privilege for Hallmark to know her, work together with her and be inspired by her sense of humanity.”

Angelou said she had been a student of the Unity spiritual movement for more than 50 years. The movement is based at Unity Village just east of Kansas City.

“I took an online course from Unity three years ago, just to understand better,” she said. “I’m excited about coming to Kansas City.”

Charlotte Shelton, president and CEO of Unity World Headquarters, said Unity Institute and Seminary had planned to present Angelou with its first honorary doctor of divinity degree at the end of her talk at the Kauffman Center. Angelou, who is on the seminary’s advisory board, was aware of the award.

Shelton said Angelou often talked about her connection to Unity and its teachings and had said the message, “God loves me just as I am,” was one of the most important lessons she learned.

“Now we will award the degree posthumously,” Shelton said. “We will miss her deeply.”

Tickets for the June 10 event will be refunded by the Kauffman Center box office, the lecture sponsor said.

Angelou began life April 4, 1928, as Marguerite Ann Johnson. She was sent to live in Stamps, Ark., with her grandmother, who owned a general store. Her grandmother was warm and supportive “with her solid air packed around her like cotton,” Angelou wrote.

Later, at age 7 or 8 and living with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was murdered, Angelou has said, probably by her uncles. Afterward, Angelou didn’t talk for five years. Later as a teenager, living with her mother in San Francisco, she took drama and dance lessons.

Then, at 16, she became pregnant from a casual encounter and had a son, Guy. From there, a most exceptional life unfolded. She chronicled her years in subsequent memoirs, including “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” and “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.”

Angelou was married several times, the first to Tosh Angelos, a sailor, from whom she fashioned a new name. At six feet tall, she began a dancing career in San Francisco and performed on a world tour with a Gershwin production. She released an album of songs, “Miss Calypso,” in the 1950s.

She moved to New York, and her life alternated between artistic and political endeavors.

Angelou had hopes to become a poet and playwright and was active in the Harlem Writers Guild. She sang at the Apollo. Later, in 1973, she was in the two-character Broadway play, “Look Away.” She was Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the TV miniseries “Roots” in the 1970s.

On the political side, she served as coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s New York office. She had a romance with a South African civil rights activist and moved with him to Cairo. She was a magazine editor there, later moving to Ghana to work at a university. Back in New York, she assisted Malcolm X in creation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

In 1970, shortly after publication of “Caged Bird,” Angelou spent a week as writer-in-residence at the University of Kansas for the English department. Elizabeth Schultz, professor emerita of English, was Angelou’s campus escort.

“It was a memorable visit because of her generosity,” Schultz said. “She gave of herself, and her writings encouraged others to give of themselves.”

Social media and the news media were abuzz Wednesday with tributes to Angelou, praise from everyday fans and famous authors and personalities.

Oprah Winfrey was no doubt one of Angelou’s biggest fans.

“I’ve been blessed to have Maya Angelou as my mentor, mother/sister, and friend since my 20s,” said Winfrey, who noted that Angelou had won three Grammys and spoke six languages. “She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. The world knows her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher.”

“But what stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life,” Winfrey said. “She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace.”

President Clinton said, “The poems and stories she wrote and read us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace.”

In her interview with The Star, Angelou was asked about life in her 80s. The only sad part, she said, was the loss of friends who had passed away.

“Friends leave,” she said. “You want to recall something you experienced with a friend, and the friend is gone.”

Otherwise, she said, “It’s great. If you can live that long, do so.”

The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, The Washington Post and The Star’s Dugan Arnett contributed to this report.

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com.

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