Dallas Morning News: Remembering Maya Angelou

May 30, 2014 

Life's richest experiences rarely come without a price. Maya Angelou paid upfront and often but reaped as many bittersweet rewards as she possibly could from a single lifetime.

Though renowned as a poet, Angelou, who died Wednesday at 86, also gained fame as a singer, dancer, lecturer, professor, best-selling author, editor and civil rights leader. Her poem and book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," count among the most recognizable of her more than 30 best-selling titles and three Grammy Awards.

Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, already was standing guard at the dawn of the civil rights era. The many hardships of a childhood in the Jim Crow South helped her forge a character of steel at an early age. She lived abroad with boldness at a time when neither blacks nor women undertook international adventures lightly.

Angelou drew from a deep well of experiences to convey in her writing an empathy with fellow strugglers. For her, adversity was something to be embraced, not shunned, with the confidence that right and good ultimately would prevail.

After her parents split when she was 3 years old, Angelou was reared by her grandmother in Stamps, Ark., at a time when Southern racism was as ubiquitous as grits. Her mother's boyfriend raped her around age 7. She informed relatives, then the boyfriend was beaten to death. Horrified, Angelou refused to speak for years afterward.

As a teen, she abandoned dance and drama school to become a cable car conductor. She later became a single mother, working as a waitress and fry cook to support her son.

The 1950s brought her a role in a European touring performance of Porgy and Bess, followed by television dancing performances with famed choreographer Alvin Ailey. In the 1960s, she worked as a newspaper and magazine editor in Egypt and Ghana. She mastered multiple languages, including French, Spanish, Italian and Arabic.

In Ghana, she met and began working with Black Muslim activist Malcolm X, then took up the civil rights cause alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Her 40th birthday fell on the same day as King's assassination.

Social turmoil and violence didn't whittle her down. Rather, Angelou seemed to relish the texture these experiences added to life, particularly as an African-American woman.

"We have to admit that we've come a long way," she told a National Public Radio interviewer in 2008. "Young people must be told yes, things are better, but not nearly as good as things will be when you put your children to the wheel."

After a lifetime of sweet songs, the bird is now freed of her earthly cage.

-- Dallas Morning News

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