Maya Angelou — writer, poet, activist, and so much more — has died. She was 86.
I had the honor of meeting Angelou once, at the annual dinner of the Children’s Defense Fund, where I once worked. She was seated at a table, so I walked over to introduce myself, and she immediately asked “are you Greek?” I said, yes. She replied, “me too!”
I gave her a bit of a funny look, as I was pretty sure Greece didn’t have too many black people.
She laughed and told me her husband, ex-husband, was Greek, and she kept the name.
She really did have a presence, a larger-than-life bubble around her that I’ve found many a great people have (though not all). It’s not a bad thing, by any means — it’s an aura of greatness; a certain stature, confidence, solidity. Marian Wright Edelman, my then-boss at CDF has the bubble. Ted Kennedy had it too. As does Hillary, to a degree. (Though I, oddly, didn’t sense it around her husband, President Clinton. Nor did I sense it around President Obama — Michelle, however, has a mini-bubble, though a very warm and welcoming one).
I’ve decided it might be worthwhile to post the “best of” tributes to Angelou online.
Maya Angelou, the memoirist and poet whose landmark book of 1969, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” — which describes in lyrical, unsparing prose her childhood in the Jim Crow South — was among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman to reach a wide general readership, died on Wednesday in her home. She was 86 and lived in Winston-Salem, N.C….
Throughout her writing, Ms. Angelou (pronounced AHN-zhe-lo) explored the concepts of personal identity and resilience through the multifaceted lens of race, sex, family, community and the collective past. As a whole, her work offered a cleareyed examination of the ways in which the socially marginalizing forces of racism and sexism played out at the level of the individual.
“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,” Ms. Angelou wrote in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Hallmarks of Ms. Angelou’s prose style included a directness of voice that recalls African-American oral tradition and gives her work the quality of testimony. She was also intimately concerned with sensation, describing the world around her — be it Arkansas, San Francisco or the foreign cities in which she lived — with palpable feeling for its sights, sounds and smells.
“She brought an understanding of the dilemmas and dangers and exhilarations of black womanhood more to the fore than almost any autobiographer before her time,” said Arnold Rampersad, a literary critic and professor emeritus of English at Stanford University. “She challenged assumptions about what was possible for a poor black girl from the South, and she emerged as a figure of courage, honesty and grace.”
Maya Angelou, presenting her poem, “On the pulse of the morning,” at President Clinton’s first inauguration:
Maya Angelou writes about her mother, in the Guardian.
Maya Angelou, “And still I rise”: