Poet, author and personality Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86. Angelou was found dead this morning at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. No cause of death has been announced.
Angelou gained literary fame with her 1969 literary memoir of childhood and adolescence I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which went on to become a fixture of high-school reading lists. Angelou authored six subsequent memoirs and multiple volumes of poetry, becoming in the process a widely recognized cultural ambassador who advocated for participatory literature and dispensed sound if unspectacular wisdom of the type that is said to boost childrens’ self-esteem. She turned in a memorable role in the landmark 1977 ABC miniseries Roots, as well as playing cameos in movies including Madea’s Family Reunion. (Sample line: “Love is many things. It’s varied. One thing it is not and can never be is unsure.”)
I will confess that Angelou’s writings did not generally keep me up reading all night, but she had an impressive career and earned celebrity in a business — poetry — that is not known for catapulting its practitioners to megastardom. Angelou got what may have been the widest audience for her work when she read a non-rhyming poem at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Older readers may recall that “On the Pulse of Morning” seemed like a slog at the time, but I can tell you it’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” compared to Richard Blanco’s “One Today,” which rung in President Obama’s second swearing-in, and Elizabeth Alexander’s 2009 inaugural work “Praise Song for the Day,” a poem so boring economists now believe it reduced America’s 2009 GDP by a quarter of a percentage point.
Angelou also emerged very late in life as an off-hand supporter of the right to bear arms. In a 2013 interview with Time magazine’s Belinda Luscombe, the ancient poetess talked Star Trek and death (“I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, ‘Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time’”), but she also recounted how she used a gun for home defense:
Did you inherit your mother’s fondness for guns?
I like to have guns around. I don’t like to carry them.
Have you ever fired your weapon?
I was in my house in North Carolina. It was fall. I heard someone walking on the leaves. And somebody actually turned the knob. So I said, “Stand four feet back because I’m going to shoot now!” Boom! Boom! The police came by and said, “Ms. Angelou, the shots came from inside the house.” I said, “Well, I don’t know how that happened.”
The comedian David Alan Grier enshrined Angelou for all time with a series of free-verse testimonials for Butterfinger, Pennzoil, Froot Loops and other household products. They capture the true Angelouvian note:
Update: The Washington Post brings up another good point about Angelou. She was a sharp critic of the “Race To the Top” education initiative and an opponent of the relentless drive toward bigger, dumber and plainer standardized testing. Whatever your feelings about the kind of “everybody’s special” boosterism that goes on among advocates for child creativity, the mechanization of schooling (and less widely noted, the short shrift given to all subjects not in the standardized tests) is dismaying, and Angelou was right to argue kids should be reading better books rather than learning to take better tests.