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The Life Of Poet Maya Angelou, From Poverty To Presidential Prizes


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Maya Angelou's voice commanded attention, whether she was reading a poem at a presidential inauguration or demanding civil rights. The prolific writer and activist died today at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

SIEGEL: She was 86 years old and is survived by her son, writer Guy Johnson, and by a host of friends and admirers. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up there and in Stamps, Arkansas. From a childhood of poverty and abuse, she became famous for works, such as her best-selling memoir, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings." In 2011, Barack Obama hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around her neck after giving her this introduction.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As a girl, Marguerite Ann Johnson endured trauma and abuse that actually led her to stop speaking. But as a performer and ultimately a writer, a poet, Maya Angelou found her voice.


MAYA ANGELOU: I'm Maya Angelou, whatever that means to whomever it means.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's how Dr. Angelou introduced herself to NPR listeners when she talked with host Rachel Martin last year. In her early professional life, she was many things starting with, she told Martin, being the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, where her mother had relocated. She was 16 years old, and Angelou told Martin her mother didn't let her go to work in the pre-dawn gloom alone.


ANGELOU: She'd drive right behind the streetcar, until daylight. And at daylight, she'd honk her horn and blow me a kiss.

GRIGSBY BATES: Maya Angelou would go on to become an entertainer, an activist and finally a best-selling writer and professor. Along the way, she met most of the prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance in New York or while traveling in Europe with a dance troupe. Later, she would become friends with Martin Luther King Jr.

For years she didn't celebrate her birthday because it fell on the date of his assassination. She became lifelong friends with King's right-hand man, Andrew Young, and in 2008, appeared in Atlanta to help celebrate Young's 75th birthday.

In a gold dress with diamonds winking at her neck and wrists, Angelou told the hundreds gathered there it was important to her as an African-American woman to have a black man who could give her, not romance or even sentiment, but steadfast, honest, brotherly support.


ANGELOU: I need somebody powerful enough to be able to come up to me and say, girl, that wasn't the slickest thing you could have done, really.

GRIGSBY BATES: Friend and poet, Nikki Giovanni, told Tell Me More's Michel Martin this morning that she and Angelou were not professional rivals, but they were ruthless when it came to one thing.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: We're not competitors in terms of poetry, but we were competitors in terms of food.

GRIGSBY BATES: Angelou was a gifted, intuitive cook and a generous entertainer. Even when she couldn't stand in her kitchen, she'd sit and oversee a recipe's construction. Many of her admirers remember that when you came to interview her, you were inevitably greeted with a little something to tide you over. Sometimes, it was home-baked cookies, other times, a recipe that she picked up on her travels through Europe and Africa, or something from the southern heritage she proudly held close to her, no matter how lofty she got. And she could get lofty.

After the hard lessons of her early life, Maya Angelou brooked neither dismissal nor disrespect. For years, she was part mother, part mentor to Oprah Winfrey, who often looked to her for guidance and trusted her implicitly. She reminded Winfrey on the talk show host's cable channel, OWN, that no matter how famous you become, you have to keep a true part of yourself to yourself.


ANGELOU: And that's what I told you 25 years ago.


ANGELOU: Say no when it's no.


ANGELOU: Say so. Back it up because that place has to remain clean and clear.

WINFREY: And that has to be a place within yourself.

ANGELOU: Yes, ma'am.

GRIGSBY BATES: Even as her health was fading, Maya Angelou retained her zest for a life lived without regrets, as she told Canadian TV host George Stroumboulopoulos in her Winston-Salem home, in December.


ANGELOU: I know that when I'm finished doing what I'm sent here to do, I will be called home. And I will go home without any fear or trepidations. I'm wondering what's going to happen.

GRIGSBY BATES: Nikki Giovanni told Tell Me More's Michel Martin her friend had no fear of the end because of her deep faith in God's love.

GIOVANNI: There's an old, Negro spiritual - he woke me up this morning and started me on my way. The Lord is blessing me. And I don't know anybody who thinks that but Maya.


GRIGSBY BATES: Maya Angelou enjoyed her life. She loved her students at Wake Forest. She loved regaling visitors with stories. She loved good food and seeing others enjoy it and loved being generous to others when she could. She once famously said, I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.