Maya Angelou -- a world-renowned poet and author who called Arkansas her childhood home -- died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was 86.
Although an official cause of death was not released, Angelou had canceled several recently scheduled appearances because of poor health. In April, she called off a sold-out appearance at the Fayetteville Public Library because an "unexpected ailment put me in the hospital."
In an apologetic letter to her "Arkansas family and friends," Angelou wrote that she "will be getting better and the time will come when I can receive another invitation from my state and you will recognize me for I shall be the tall Black lady smiling."
Born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Angelou bore many titles in her lifetime -- poet, actress, calypso dancer, author, madam, strip-club performer, film and television director, singer, mother, streetcar conductor, educator and civil-rights activist.
In her life, Angelou befriended U.S. presidents and civil-rights leaders, including Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. She was appointed to presidential committees by Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
In 1993, Angelou became the first black poet to read at a presidential inauguration after then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton commissioned her to write and read an original poem. "On the Pulse of the Morning" became a best-seller after Clinton's public delight in the poem.
"But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow."
-- "On the Pulse of Morning"
"With Maya Angelou's passing, America has lost a national treasure; and Hillary and I, a beloved friend," Clinton said Wednesday in an official statement. "The poems and stories she wrote and read to us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace. I will always be grateful for her electrifying reading of "On the Pulse of Morning" at my first inaugural, and even more for all the years of friendship that followed. Now she sings the songs the Creator gave to her when the river 'and the tree and the stone were one.'"
One of the defining moments of her legendary career as an author came with the 1969 publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography of her childhood, which was spent mostly in the small Arkansas town of Stamps.
When she was just 3, Angelou and her brother, Bailey Johnson Jr., were sent to Stamps to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. Four years later, their father, Bailey Johnson Sr., whisked them back to St. Louis to live with their mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson.
By then, the couple had ended their tumultuous marriage. There, at the age of 7½, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, and Angelou identified him as her attacker. Shortly afterward, the attacker was killed, and Angelou and her brother were sent back to Stamps.
She was a mute for four years because she felt that her voice had caused the man's death. A teacher in Stamps who befriended her, Beulah Flowers, introduced her to classical writing, which led her to speak once again, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas said.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings not only chronicled the sexual abuse she suffered in St. Louis but also gave a harsh depiction of Stamps as a segregated town.
"In Stamps, the segregation was so complete that most black children didn't really, absolutely know what whites looked like," she wrote. "High spots in Stamps were usually negative: Droughts, floods, lynching and deaths," another passage said.
That depiction created long-held friction between Angelou and the south Arkansas town. That friction still exists to some degree.
Stamps Mayor David Bright said that although he has spent all of his 63 years in Stamps, he does not recall ever knowing Angelou. He does remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in the 1970s but said "there's not a lot of celebration about her here."
"We don't have a park named after her, or a library named after her. There's not a lot to signify that she lived here," Bright said. "The things she said about our community were pretty unflattering and some people say untrue. I don't want to go down that road."
In sharp contrast to the times, Angelou's grandmother prospered in the town because she owned a general store that sold much-needed commodities during the Depression and World War II.
Stamps native Mary Brown, who grew up with Angelou, said the poet and author left a legacy, not only with blacks in Stamps, but for the state and nation as a whole as someone who rose above her upbringing and made her dreams come true.
"I learned from her that everybody is the captain of their own ship. I felt like I could do whatever I set my mind to do," Brown said. "I'm 76, and I'm still setting goals."
Brown said Angelou showed promise as a poet from a very early age. It was Angelou who always took the starring role and wrote poetry for theatrical productions at the Brown Chapel Family Church in Stamps.
"I told my father, 'Maya is going to be a writer.' My father would tell me, 'You don't know what you're talking about.' He didn't live to see it come true," Brown said, speaking of her father, P.R. Brown.
"And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed."
-- "I Shall Not be Moved"
Gov. Mike Beebe said Wednesday that Angelou will "always remain an Arkansas and American treasure."
"She drew from a troubled and painful childhood to write books and poems that have inspired countless others," Beebe said. "From Stamps, Arkansas, to the steps of the U.S. Capitol for President Clinton's inauguration, Maya Angelou showed how strength, determination and honesty can take us all to the heights of greatness."
Upon hearing of Angelou's death Wednesday, Sherrel Johnson, an El Dorado resident and a director with the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board, made a trip to the bank to get from her safe-deposit box a handwritten card from Angelou that Johnson received in the late 1980s.
The note came after Johnson took a group of El Dorado community college students to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to hear Angelou speak. The crowd was so large that some of the students were left standing outside and at least one teacher, Arlene Stuck, who was a lifelong fan of Angelou, did not get to hear her speak.
Johnson took it upon herself to write Angelou and ask that she send a personal note to the teacher. Angelou sent a note to Johnson with the simple inscription "Joy!" followed by her signature and a sentence in parentheses saying she had written to her friend.
"The whole trip was centered around seeing Maya Angelou. For us, it was our goal to expose our students, both black and white, to African-Americans who were in positions of influence and authority so that students could aspire to do great things," Johnson said. "She was magnificent. I don't know that I've ever been around anybody with such singular presence ever."
It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
-- "Phenomenal Woman"
In the April letter to the Fayetteville Public Library, Angelou wrote that she longed to come back to Arkansas. It was here, she said, that she "learned at a very young age from my grandmother who taught me, 'when you learn, teach and when you get, give.'"
"In Arkansas, I learned to trust love, not the romance of it, but the heart of it," she wrote. "In Arkansas I learned to have respect for friendship, to honor it, to trust it and to build it."
"I answer the heroic question, 'Death where is thy sting?' with "It is here in my heart and mind and memories."
-- "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now"
A Section on 05/29/2014