Acclaimed poet, author, playwright, actress and activist Maya Angelou has died at age 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, stilling a leading voice in American literature.
The prolific African-American writer provided eloquent commentary on race, gender and living fully. She penned more than 30 books, such as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She won numerous awards and was honored last year by the National Book Awards for her service to the literary community, Reuters reported. In 2011, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. She read a poem at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, in 1993.
Angelou was to have been honored Friday in Houston at Major League Baseball’s Beacon Awards Luncheon, before the annual Civil Rights game, but had declined last week, citing health reasons.
A Facebook post attributed to her son, Guy B. Johnson, said Angelou “passed quietly in her home before 8:00 a.m. EST.
“Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension,” the post continued. “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
The executive director of the National Book Foundation, Harold Augenbraum, described her as “an extraordinary symbol in the United States of what can be accomplished using the arts."
"She was beyond simply being a writer of autobiography and poetry,” Augenbraum told Reuters. He said Angelou used "writing as a transcendence medium to further the individual."
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Angelou also was mourned at Wake Forest University, where she had been a professor of American studies since 1982. The Winston-Salem university, on its website, lamented the loss of “beloved poet, author, actress, civil rights actress and professor Dr. Maya Angelou,” saying her “life and teachings inspired millions around the world.”
At Wake Forest, Angelou taught literature, ethics and writing. In a 2012 interview with the student newspaper, Old Gold and Black, she said, “I have found that I’m not a writer who can teach, I really am a teacher who can write.”
Born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, she spent much of her childhood with her grandmother in tiny Stamps, Arkansas. For Southern blacks, it was a time of racial segregation and economic hardship. What made life tolerable, she said, were the stories, songs and folk wisdom passed down from one generation to the next.
Angelou credited her tiny childhood church with teaching her about how such art could work magic.
“When all the members were there, we had 32 people in the whole church," she said. "And yet in that church, I learned so much about the power of art to help human beings transcend almost anything."
Angelou bore her only child at age 16, the Raleigh New & Observer reported, noting that Angelou married and divorced at least twice. She supported herself and her son in various jobs – as a waitress, cook, streetcar conductor and calypso dancer and singer. While performing in Europe, she adopted a brother’s nickname for her and amended a husband’s surname to create a stage name. She worked as an editor for the Arab Observer in Cairo in the early 1960s.
She mixed civil rights activism with her writing and performing. According to the Associated Press, she worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Council and then, while living in Egypt and Ghana, befriended South African leader and later President Nelson Mandela. She was close to Malcolmn X until his 1965 assassination. She was helping Martin Luther King Jr. organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, when the civil rights leader was shot and killed.
Urged to record her stories
Angelou’s literary career began after the writer James Baldwin and others heard her childhood stories and urged her to write them down.
The 1969 publication of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" brought her wide acclaim. The coming-of-age story, set in the American South, grappled with issues such as racism and rape.
Angelou's work again found a vast audience when she read “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Clinton’s inauguration. While she supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race, she reveled in the election of the nation’s first black president. In 2011, Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2013, she received an honorary National Book Award.
A prolific writer, Angelou produced numerous essays, memoirs, screenplays, children’s books, cookbooks, but she is best known for “Caged Bird,” “Still I Rise, “Letter to My Daughter” and “Still I Rise.” Her latest work "Mom & Me & Mom," about her mother and grandmother and what they taught her, was released last year.
A varied career
She also appeared in film and television, and recorded music and her poetry. She won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums, the Associated Press reported, and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community.
She was a friend and mentor to the novelist Toni Morrison and media giant Oprah Winfrey, among others. She appeared frequently on “Oprah,” Winfrey’s long-running television talk show and, in recent years, had an audience on the XM radio channel “Oprah and Friends.”
She shared some of her writing on a Facebook account. One of her last posts, dated May 23, was this: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
VOA's Faith Lapidus contributed to this report. Some information was provided by Reuters.