MAYA ANGELOU: A phenomenal woman

In this Dec. 15 1992 file photo, American poet and writer Maya Angelou speaks in Washington, D.C. Angelou, a Renaissance woman and cultural pioneer, has died, Wake Forest University said in a statement Wednesday, May 28, 2014. She was 86.
AP Photo/Doug Mills, File
AP Photo/Doug Mills, File

“Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

Maya Angelou’s last tweet, May 27, 2014

Did you know that Maya Angelou was one of the first Black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author? She gained acclaim for her first book her autobiography entitled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

That single work made her one of the first African-American women to write a best-seller.

Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until the publication of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” And it might not have happened if author James Baldwin had not persuaded her to attend a party at Jules Feiffer’s house. Reportedly Angelou was still grieving the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and had to be convinced to attend a party. Feiffer was so taken by Angelou that he mentioned her to Random House editor Bob Loomis, who persuaded her to write a book.

But she also sang calypso.

In her lifetime, she also won three Grammy awards for her spoken-word albums and last year received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community.

Actually, the celebrated iconic woman acclaimed as poet thrived in virtually every artistic medium.

She is credited with co-writing songs for Roberta Flack’s 1988 “Oasis” album; penned tunes for the soundtrack of the 1957 film “Calypso Heat Wave” and Sidney Poitier’s 1968 blockbuster “For Love of Ivy” and composed the score for “Georgia, Georgia” which was released in 1972.

Angelou’s heights in poetry was perhaps most noted when she was chosen to read at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993.

For that occasion she wrote and read an original composition entitled: “On the Pulse of the Morning.”

The reading was spectacular and memorable and in no time it became a million-seller.

In 2005 when Clinton had already vacated the White House, Angelou was invited by President George W. Bush to attend the lighting of the Christmas tree. During the ceremony, she read another poem, “Amazing Peace.”

Her relationship with the Clintons seemed enduring because in 2008 when Hillary Rodham Clinton vied against the candidate who ultimately successfully emerged the country’s first Black president, she supported the former first lady.

Although she did not publicly support the historic President Barack Obama, allegedly, a few days before his inauguration, “she was clearly overjoyed.”

She reportedly said she would be watching his inauguration on television “somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know.”

Regular viewers of the Oprah Winfrey Show may recall her many appearances on the hit television program. Winfrey revered her as mentor and someone she had embraced since she was a local TV reporter.

Angelou mastered several languages and published not just poetry, but advice books, cookbooks and children’s stories.

And just when one would cap her talents she disclosed her next-best passion to be dance, the art she said she considered closest to poetry. She danced with Alvin Ailey.

An actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and ‘60s, Angelou’s work in Hollywood spanned acting for film, television and the theater. She got her first notice onscreen playing an un-credited dancer in the 1959 film adaptation of “Porgy & Bess.” The film version starred Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.

She even toured in the road company of “Porgy Bess” and also with Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.”

In 1998, Angelou directed the film “Down in the Delta.” The film spotlights a drug-worn woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta.

The film featured Alfre Woodard, Esther Rolle and Wesley Snipes.

Fans of Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson discovered the genius poet when director John Singleton integrated her words into his 1993 movie “Poetic Justice.” She was pivotal to the film and her poems were recited throughout the film by the lead character Justice, portrayed by Jackson.

Angelou also appeared in the movie as May, one of three elderly sisters.

She was nominated for a Tony Award for best featured actress in a play in 1973 for her role as the real-life Elizabeth Keckley, a confidante of President Abraham Lincoln wife Mary Todd Lincoln.

Directed by Rip Torn, “Look Away” depicted the final days of the former first lady.

Angelou’s acting roles also included appearances in the 1977 miniseries of “Roots;” with Richard Pryor on his NBC special in 1977, with Ellen Burstyn Winona Ryder and Anne Bancroft in “How to Make an American Quilt” in 1995, and even joining Tyler Perry’s collaborators in 2006 for “Madea’s Family Reunion.”

In 2002, she parlayed her writing talent in an unexpected way by launching a line of greeting cards with industry giant Hallmark.

Youngsters will also recall her many visits to “Sesame Street” where she joined the Muppets to help educate a generation of young television viewers.

Although very dedicated to the arts, Angelou made time for activism. She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Council where she fully immersed herself in the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She lived for many years in Egypt and Ghana. Back in the 1960s, Malcolm X had written to Angelou and praised her for her ability to communicate so directly, with her “feet firmly rooted on the ground.

It was overseas that she met Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination in 1965.

Three years later, she helped King organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.

“Every year, on that day, Coretta and I would send each other flowers,” Angelou once said of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King who died in 2006.

And her much-publicized friendship with Nelson Mandela was very evident when she was often seen in his presence at fundraising visits he made here on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC).

Born Marguerite Johnson she adopted her nickname Maya for the stage. From her St. Louis birthplace she was raised in Stamps, Ark., and also San Francisco, California dividing the time between her parents and her grandmother.

Allegedly, “She was smart and fresh to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas.”

At age 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t speak for five years. She learned by reading, and listening. But at age 9, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel and married Enistasious Tosh Angelos, her first of three husbands. By her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller.

She reportedly spent a few days with Billie Holliday. She said the famed blues singer even sang a lullaby to Angelou’s son Guy.

She reportedly told Lady Day: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”

The young single mother who performed at strip clubs to earn a living later wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history.

Angelou rose from poverty, segregation and violence to become a force on stage, screen and the printed page died at age 86. She was reportedly found by her caretaker on the morning of May 28.

Her son Guy B. Johnson said she died quietly in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension,” Johnson said in a statement. “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”

In North Carolina, she lived in an 18-room house and taught American Studies at Wake Forest. She also was a member of the Board of Trustees for Bennett College, a private school for Black women in Greensboro, N.C. Angelou hosted a weekly satellite radio show for XM’s “Oprah & Friends”channel.

She also owned and renovated a New York townhouse in Harlem, the inside decorated in spectacular primary colors.

On hearing of her passing Rev. Al Sharpton had this to say:“Maya Angelou was the quintessential renaissance woman of the 20th century art and human rights movements. Not only was she a literary icon, she was one of the few that turned her words into action. Although she participated in civil rights rallies, she challenged leaders of the civil rights movement to embrace the struggles of others and a broader view of freedom fighting. She challenged misogyny in the movement and was our poet, conscience, teacher and corrector. She was one of the few people whose presence you felt in the room even if she didn’t say a word. Her spirit was incomparable.”

More from Around NYC