THR Web Features   /   May 28, 2014

She Knew Why the Caged Bird Sings

Jay Tolson

Maya Angelou (Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons)

Maya Angelou, born Marguerete Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928, died today in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, having accomplished in a little over 86 years what would take most gifted people at least two lifetimes to equal.

Maya Angelou (Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons)

Resilience, a quality much talked about these days, marked the life of the poet and author who, in her earlier years, worked as a cook, prostitute, pimp, night-club singer, and dancer. Raped at age 7 by her mother's boyfriend, she turned mute for almost five years, believing that her words—her accusation—had been responsible for the murder of her rapist.

The reading of books slowly brought Angelou out of her self-imposed silence, but she did not begin writing in earnest until the 1960s, while living and working as an actor, activist, and  journalist in New York City and Ghana, crusading for civil rights with the SCLC, befriending Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X,  and James Baldwin, and finally bringing out her first autobiography in 1969.  Its title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, came from a line in the poem "Sympathy," by African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Angelou's autobiographical works blended the rich details of her experience with the techniques of literary fiction, but her literary energies also found expression in essays, stories, poetry, TV scripts, documentaries, and plays.

Never having attended university or even graduated from high school, she became in 1982  the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, discovering, in her words, "I'm not a writer who teaches. I'm a teacher who writes. But I had to work at Wake Forest to know that."

Early tributes here, here, here, and here.