Before she sat down to write her first book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou had already pulled off several stunning acts of personal reinvention. The St. Louis-born daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper family, Miss Angelou had been a cable-car conductor, teen mom, a fry cook, a professional dancer, an actress, a journalist and a playwright — more or less in that order — before she turned 40.
By 1969, when she published “Caged Bird,” the autobiography that cemented her place in the U.S. literary canon, Miss Angelou had transformed herself into the consummate cultural networker, bridging the worlds of art and political activism. She had worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a friend to Malcolm X during his African sojourn, acted alongside Broadway thespians such as James Earl Jones and was a confidant to novelist James Baldwin.
She was a living link between the rural Deep South of Jim Crow (with its rampant illiteracy, segregation and economic oppression) and the literati who took up the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and the cause of the civil-rights movement. She was a victim of childhood rape, a single mother whose great gift was to bring the struggles of the poorest of the American poor, its survivors, into the literary mainstream.
Later, Oprah Winfrey and others made an industry out of the survivor narratives of 20th-century America. But it was Miss Angelou who helped show us the depth of human courage and fortitude to be found among the seemingly weak and defenseless.
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“Once I got into it, I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass — the slave narrative — speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying ‘I’ meaning ‘we,’” she told the Paris Review in 1990.
Her autobiography project eventually resulted in seven books spanning more than 1,000 pages. The final volume, “Mom & Me & Mom” — a portrait of her independent, often-absent mother — was published in 2013.
Miss Angelou had grown up among field workers, seeing “fingers cut by the mean little cotton bolls,” she wrote in “Caged Bird.” She was educated in schools that taught her William Shakespeare but that denied her and her people the opportunity to live any other life but that of manual labor.
“There was no ‘nobler in the mind’ for Negroes,” she wrote, remembering a segregated eighth-grade graduation at which the valedictorian quoted “Hamlet.” The then-12-year-old future writer was unconvinced. The “world didn’t think we had minds, and they let us know it.”
Her books, and her life itself, became a kind of organizing tool, a rallying cry, an affirmation. We may be born low and despised, her books said, but we are alive and free. Her books became staples of American classrooms.
She wrote sitting in bed with “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible,” as interviewer George Plimpton once reminded her. Her long and illustrious book-writing career was not only the third act in her life, it was also a vocation born accidentally over a dinner conversation in Manhattan.
She was just trying to keep up with Baldwin, who was a great raconteur. Cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy, were sitting at the table, too: They listened to her stories of the South and later called an editor at Random House.
The books that resulted could be as tender and pointedly observant as the works of the great thinker and ethnographer W.E.B. DuBois; as angry and raw as the novels of Richard Wright; or as lyrical and proud as the Harlem Renaissance poets whose work Miss Angelou admired.
“Caged Bird” ends with Miss Angelou pregnant. “The world had ended, and I was the only person who knew it,” she wrote.
But in this, the darkest of her moments, a new vision of herself and her future was born. “For eons, it seemed, I had accepted my plight as the hapless, put-upon victim of fate and the Furies, but this time I had to face the fact that I had brought my new catastrophe upon myself.”
She did not allow her “catastrophe” to define her, and she thereby helped uplift countless young men and women who found themselves in similar circumstances. Her writing voice, born of the rhythms of the Bible, she said, eventually took her to the largest public stages a writer could hope to visit, including the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1993, where she became the first inaugural poet since Robert Frost.
“On the Pulse of Morning,” her inaugural poem, was a celebration of American diversity and fortitude.
By then, her voice, born in the Deep South, had itself achieved a kind of universality. The hopeful words of a onetime “victim of fate” had come to stand for the best of what an entire country saw in itself.