Maya Angelou remembered for universal appeal

Maya Angelou answers questions at her portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for National Portrait Gallery)

NEW YORK (AP) — You didn’t have to love books or share her background or even know a lot about Maya Angelou to feel that she somehow knew a lot about you.

You might have sensed you were in a club that accepted everyone and that the reasons for joining were as vast and complicated as the life and talents of the author herself.

Perhaps it was the story of Angelou, who died Wednesday at age 86: A poor, black woman from the segregated South who somehow ascends to the worldwide stage. Or the people she befriended: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison, the Clintons and Barack Obama. You might have seen her read the inaugural poem for Bill Clinton, caught one of her interviews with Winfrey, remembered her from the television series “Roots” or were assigned “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in English class.

Maybe her speaking voice was enough — deep, warm and understanding, like a family matriarch or the Supreme Court justice of your dreams; or her written voice, lyrical and personal, inviting you to share and relate to the most hurtful memories, such as the white girls who mocked Angelou’s grandmother as they approached the store where the author worked as a child.

“Before the girls got to the porch I heard their laughter crackling and popping like pine logs in a cooking store,” she wrote in “Caged Bird,” published in 1969. “I suppose my lifelong paranoia was born in those cold, molasses-slow minutes.

“At first they pretended seriousness. Then one of them wrapped her right arm in the crook of her left, pushed out her mouth and started to hum. I realized that she was aping my grandmother.”

Angelou needed half a dozen books just to get through her first 40 years and even longtime followers could find themselves amazed at some new detail they discovered. Did you know that she and Quincy Jones co-wrote a song for B.B. King, that Muhammad Ali dined at her house in Ghana, that she performed at the same nightclub as Phyllis Diller? Have you seen that picture of her dancing with Amiri Baraka, or towering over Baraka and Morrison as the three arrived at James Baldwin’s funeral?

Angelou worked not just outside the literary canon, but beyond it. Awards committees ignored her until nearly the end, but the public seemed to honor Angelou daily. You’d spot one of her poems or sayings in a yearbook, find yourself among the 5 million liking her Facebook page, or learning that one of your friends had read — and loved — “Caged Bird,” too.

In every way, she seemed without limits. She could write, sing, dance, compose, act and direct. Depending on your age, or background, she was like a mother, a sister, a close friend, a sage. You may not have liked everything she did, but it seemed impossible not to at least admire one thing, and for that to be enough to admire her overall.

Her body had been weak for years, but her spirit will live on. At a gala poetry reading last month at Lincoln Center, the actress Rosie Perez smirked and strutted as she reeled off the unstoppable lines of Angelou’s “Still I Rise”:

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

`Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.


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