US author Maya Angelou, an eloquent commentator on race and gender best known for her groundbreaking autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, died at age 86. File picture: Gary Hershorn

Maya Angelou had been mute once and never would be again, writes Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

London - Maya Angelou, who died on Wednesday, was a phenomenal woman. This African American, who had the most horrendous experiences as a child, rose to become a bestselling, globally famous author and poet, civil rights activist, feminist, speaker, artist and an inspiration.

In 1993, she wrote and performed a poem at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration and since then, all presidents, including George Bush, paid her various tributes. She addressed the UN, was feted by world leaders, awarded top awards and honorary degrees. But most of all, best of all, she was loved by millions of her readers.

She died on Wednesday at her home in North Carolina aged 86. It was her amazing life and the telling of it in seven autobiographies that made her name. The first, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969) takes us from childhood to when she was 17, by which time she had undergone terrible experiences and survived.

Born in 1928, in St Louis, Missouri, she was the second child of Vivien Baxter, a nurse and Bailey Johnson, who was a doorman and dietician. The marriage was made in hell and the couple parted when Maya was three and her brother Bailey, was four. The two children were sent off to live with Johnson’s mother, Annie Henderson, a good Christian, who owned a small, profitable store in Stamps, Arkansas. They were happy there.

Four years later, without any explanation, Johnson moved them back to live with their mother. Soon afterwards Vivien’s boyfriend raped Maya, then only eight.

He was arrested and jailed for one day – one day! Four days after he was released, he was murdered and Maya stopped speaking for five years. But she read, watched, listened, learnt, thought and expanded her imagination. By the time she was 17 she was a mother. Black Americans then had few rights, endured appalling racism and many also lived in dysfunctional families.

Maya Angelou’s first book was in many ways a parable of these multiple disadvantages and instabilities. Some African Americans criticised her for her “treachery”. Like other beleaguered communities, they guarded their secrets and thought she should have too. But she had been mute once and never would be again.

Unlike too many of her people, she overcame her circumstances. In fact all the adversities of her long life – and there were so many – spurred her to make something of herself, to show all those who had so badly failed and hurt her and also white supremacists for whom black people were forever damned.

God seemed to have gifted her a vast array of talents, as well as spirit, sensuality, audacity and extraordinary resilience. Raising her son gave her immeasurable joy and, I think, was her greatest fear. She was at various times, a cook, dancer and singer – even a prostitute when times were hard.

She was unshakeably committed to the civil rights movement, was close to Martin Luther King and white Americans who were part of the struggle in the Sixties and Seventies. By the time she reached middle age, Maya Angelou had won over people of all races in the US and elsewhere.

And she had loyalties beyond race. In fact she backed Hillary Clinton in the fight for the Democratic nomination and again provoked much criticism from her black brothers and sisters. When Obama won, she graciously transferred her support to him.

I interviewed her three times over eight years. The last time was in 1998. She had got very grand by then, loved fine food and whiskey and being driven around by chauffeurs. It was important to her to be seen as a somebody, always.

But when we talked, she was open, wise, caring and always, always mesmerising. We exchanged recipes – both of us loved cooking – and talked about how we were raising our sons and our hopes for them.

Very few writers can speak as beautifully and evocatively as Maya Angelou did. Our very first meeting was in 1989, just after my ex-husband had left me and I was feeling fragile and alone. I told her what had happened and she invited me to her birthday party in a lovely private venue in London. And there she recited one of her most popular poems, Still I Rise, looked at me and smiled. It was a poem celebrating the strength of women, who will not be beaten down.

And yes, she gave me strength and hope. As she did most women who read her. And men too.