Maya Angelou, who died today at the age of 86, was a writer, a leader, a courageous social activist, a usurper of cultural norms, and a challenger of prejudice; but, above all, she was a poet, famously in love with words.
Born in St. Louis, Maya Angelou grew up with segregation, and her writing captured the malaise of the Jim Crow south. She was raped as a child and spent much of her adolescence in a state of discomforting quietude. Her mother, Vivian Baxter, was volatile and beautiful, and Angelou’s 2013 book Mom & Me & Mom depicted their wavering relationship.
In the 1950s, Angelou traveled to Europe to dance in the production Porgy and Bess in an all black ensemble. She was a calypso singer and a dancer — a natural performer. Her writing would be deeply influenced by these experiences, and by the nearly-tangible feeling of conversation and speech.
Angelou’s classic book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, simultaneously sought to elucidate the way modern culture’s shrouded racism with ignorance, as well as the conventions of the autobiography genre. The book is often cited as an autobiography, a bildungsroman (like Richard Wright’s Native Son), a proto-memoir, and a roman a clef. (Genre wasn’t nearly as important in 1969 as it is now; there was no “creative nonfiction” or “memoir” or “lyrical essay,” and postmodernism was, and still is, a slippery term better left to sharper minds.) Using the same kind of literary techniques that would earned Frank McCourt a Pulitzer thirty years later, Angelou rendered her story as literature, as poetry, though not fictitiously. She used her articulate grasp of language to turn memories into art. Hilton Als eloquently said Angelou was a “pioneer of self-exposure.”
For now, suffice it to say that book is undeniably autobiographical and undeniably great.