“A brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.”
So said US President Barack Obama of Maya Angelou, leading tributes from around the world after the news was posted by her family on Facebook that she had died at the age of 86. In 2011, Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award for a civilian in the United States. As he said at the time, she was many things – author, poet, playwright, actress, director and composer – but “most of all, she was a storyteller – and her greatest stories were true”.
Angelou is a great American writer, studied in schools and universities across the country and hailed by politicians – former US President Bill Clinton said that she was a “national treasure” and he and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had lost a “beloved friend”. Hers was an American story: Rags to riches, overcoming prejudice and misfortune to touch the American dream. But her impact was worldwide; she was more than a national writer. Her poetry and stories were translated into dozens of languages. She taught the world about the power of language – and how words could change the world.
Where she had the greatest impact was her autobiographical fiction. Her blend of memoir, autobiography and fiction created incredible, powerful stories – and opened up the potential of the intimate, no-holds-barred memoir to readers and writers across the world.
Feted and influential
For the young Marguerite Johnson to become so feted and influential would seem impossible. She was born to a nurse and navy dietician in St Louis, Missouri in April 1928 – a second child in a disastrous marriage. At four, she was sent to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, along with her brother. He called her “Maya”, while trying to say her name – and it stuck.
While staying with her mother at the age of seven, she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The rapist was imprisoned briefly by the authorities – and killed when he came out. Maya was struck dumb by the experience. As she said, “I thought my voice had killed a man and so it wasn’t safe to speak.”
Many found Angelou’s work hard to stomach – the American Library Association listed ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ as one of their top 10 books most likely to be banned from high school classrooms. But nearly 50 years on, it is rated by many writers as the most influential memoir of the 20th century.
For the next five years, she was silent – choosing to be mute, as she put it. She poured all her energy into reading, devouring books enthusiastically whenever she had a spare moment. Finally, a friend of her grandmother’s persuaded her to speak – telling her that poetry could only be truly understood when read aloud.
Angelou moved to San Francisco to live with her mother when she was 14. In the years that followed, she had a son at 17 and went deep into the city’s nightlife as a dancer, singer and brothel madam.
She moved to New York and became active in the Civil Rights Movement. Devastated by the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, she began trying to write her life from the age of three to 17, with encouragement from the author James Baldwin. The book was published as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings burst into the literary scene in 1969, its raw honesty and incredible intimacy was shocking.
The revelations about girlhood, family abuse and poverty made it a bestseller, spending two years on the New York Times bestseller list. At the same time, she challenged the form of the autobiography, using techniques of dialogue, scene setting and plot development usually associated with fiction.
An inspiration for writers of autobiography and fiction alike, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings also showed that the most personal experience could have a huge political ramifications. It opened up new possibilities for black women writers to explore subjugation and marginalisation – and pointed new directions for African-American and black writing by women and men. Thanks to the book, the stories of the young and oppressed would never be overlooked or ignored again.
In 1993, Bill Clinton chose Angelou to recite her poem, On the Pulse of Morning at his inauguration. In the weeks after, sales of her books rose 500 percent across the world – and one reviewer called her the “black women’s laureate”.
Her poetry was a revelation
To writers, particularly women in Africa and those struggling under oppression, her poetry was a revelation; in contrast to complicated words and imagery fashionable in many western poems, she combined straightforward and powerful images to expose the pains and joys of her experiences. Thanks to her, the poetry of self became newly important – and the oppressed across the world were emboldened to believe that they could reveal their personal experience.
Many found Angelou’s work hard to stomach – the American Library Association listed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as one of their top 10 books most likely to be banned from high school classrooms. But nearly 50 years on, it is rated by many writers as the most influential memoir of the 20th century.
Angelou went on to write six more books of memoir, three volumes of poetry, essays and books of poetry, as well as television and film scripts and two cookery books. Her last volume of autobiography, Mom & Me & Mom came out in 2013.
Even at the end, earlier this week, she was busy writing a new book – and tweeting. In a world where many still suffer from discrimination, prejudice and children are still exploited by adults, her work speaks to millions. Her last tweet from @DrMayaAngelou was: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude, you might hear the words of God.”
Kate Williams is an author, historian and broadcaster on history, culture and the arts. She has written four history books and one novel. Her second novel, Storms of War, the first of a trilogy about a family from 1914 to 1939, will be out in July.