Maya Angelou and New York City


Curtains forcing their will
against the wind,
children sleep,
exchanging dreams with
seraphim. The city
drags itself awake on
subway straps; and
I, an alarm, awake as a
rumor of war,
lie stretching into dawn,
unasked and unheeded.

–Maya Angelou, Awakening in New York, 1983

Maya Angelou, the great author and poet and activist, has died. She was 86.

She was born in St. Louis, spent her early years in Stamps, Arkansas, and went to high school in San Francisco. She was an editor in Cairo, Egypt. She lived in Accra, Ghana when Malcolm X traveled across Africa and she lived in Los Angeles when the Watts riots broke out. She was a professor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she resided in her final years and where her caretaker found her dead on Wednesday morning.

Angelou left roots in many cities. It was in New York City, though, where her literary career bloomed.

She came to and left the city and returned more than once, never staying more than a few years, each time leaving a larger footprint.

She first arrived in 1951, in her early 20s, to study dance. She stayed less than a year before going back to San Francisco, where she would pursue a career as a singer and dancer.

In 1958, she returned to New York to become a writer. She joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild, and got her poetry published for the first time. She sang at the Apollo, performed off-Broadway, met Martin Luther King Jr., and became the New York coordinator for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Then in 1961, she began a relationship with South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make and they moved to Cairo.

Six years later, Angelou was back in New York City. One evening, not long after King was killed, she gathered with friends for dinner. Decades later, as the New York Times reported in 2007, she recalled that evening:

It was 1968, she said, and she was in a deep depression over the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Her friend James Baldwin took her to the home of Jules Feiffer and his wife at the time, Judy. The group began telling stories of their childhoods. The next day Judy Feiffer phoned [Random House editor Robert] Loomis and told him that he ought to get this woman to write a book. Mr. Loomis tried, but Ms. Angelou recalled, “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

Mr. Loomis tried another ploy, phoning Ms. Angelou and saying, “‘It’s just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible,’ ” she recounted.

That did it. “I said, ‘I will try.’ “

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was released the next year.

She left soon after, and spent most of the following decades in California and then North Carolina. By the late 2000s, she owned three properties and two of them were in Winston-Salem.

The other was in Harlem, a brownstone she bought in 2004. It was not a permanent residence, but a place she returned to often. She hosted Christmas parties there, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Her life’s work, however, would find a permanent home in New York. In 2010, the Schomburg Center purchased her archives.