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Poet, civil rights activist Maya Angelou dead at 86

A literary voice revered globally for her poetic command and her commitment to civil rights has fallen silent.

Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Wednesday, said her literary agent, Helen Brann. Angelou had been “frail” and suffering from heart problems, the agent said.

Angelou’s legacy is twofold. She leaves behind a body of important artistic work that influenced several generations. But the 86-year-old was praised by those who knew her as a good person, a woman who pushed for justice and education and equality.

In her full life, she wrote staggeringly beautiful poetry. She also wrote a cookbook and was nominated for a Tony. She delivered a poem at a presidential inauguration. In 2010, President Barack Obama named her a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

She was friends with Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and inspired young adults and world celebrities.

She sang calypso. She lived through horrors.

Her lasting contribution to literature, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” bore witness to the brutality of a Jim Crow South, portraying racism in stark language. Readers learned of the life of Marguerite Ann Johnson (Angelou’s birth name) up to the age of 16: how she was abandoned by her parents and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She was homeless and became a teen mother.

Its publication was both daring and historic, given the era of its debut in 1969.

“All of the writers of my generation must honor the ground broken by Dr. Maya Angelou,” author Tayari Jones posted on her Facebook page Wednesday.

“She told a story that wasn’t allowed to be told,” Jones said. “Now, people tell all sorts of things in memoir, but when she told the truth, she challenged a taboo — not for shock value, but to heal us all.”

Black American novelist Julian Mayfield is said to have described the autobiography as “a work of art which eludes description.”

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was an international bestseller and nominated for a National Book Award in 1970.

“If you want to know what it was like to live at the bottom of the heap before, during and after the American Depression, this exceptional book will tell you,” hailed British critic Paul Bailey.

The book became a mainstay of student reading lists, much to the chagrin of some authorities. The book has reportedly been banned numerous times.

Angelou’s mastery of literature trumped those who tried to keep her down. She knew that storytelling always won in the end.

“I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine … before she realizes she’s reading,” Angelou once said.

On Wednesday, people of all ages and backgrounds took to social media to say what her life’s work meant to them.

Adrian Sean of Detroit posted a CNN iReport tribute, saying, “I cannot describe the feeling I had when I read ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ for the first time, and knew someone else in the world had been through extreme hardships just as I had.

“She not only survived, but she thrived just by being herself,” she said. “Maya Angelou was and still is a teacher, a mentor, and a friend to me. Her impact on my life will always have a special place in my heart.”

From dropout to Dr. Angelou

Angelou spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco, but dropped out of school at age 14.

When she was 16, Angelou became San Francisco’s first female streetcar driver.

Angelou later returned to high school to get her diploma. She gave birth a few weeks after graduation. While the 17-year-old single mother waited tables to support her son, she developed a passion for music and dance, and toured Europe in the mid-1950s in the opera production “Porgy and Bess.”

In 1957, she recorded her first album, “Miss Calypso.”

In 1958, Angelou become a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and played a queen in “The Blacks,” an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet.

“I created myself,” Angelou once said. “I have taught myself so much.”

Angelou spoke at least six languages and worked as a newspaper editor in Egypt and Ghana.

Affectionately referred to as Dr. Angelou, the writer never went to college. But she has more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

“Maya Angelou has been a towering figure — at Wake Forest and in American culture. She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation,” Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch said Wednesday. “We will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights.”

The university published a tribute site which features her last speaking engagement at Wake Forest.

Angelou was a proud woman, which occasionally made problems for her hosts and students.

One observer, escorting her to a speech, remembers greeting her casually, only to be told to address her as “Ms. Angelou.” Her students at Wake Forest could be as blistering as they were complimentary. “A fantastic motivator and I hope to have more of her classes in the future,” wrote one anonymous commenter on RateMyProfessors.com, while another assessed her as a “wonderful writer, but fame does not imply a right to insult or demean others.”

Angelou talked about her approach to teaching on Oprah Winfrey’s “Oprah’s Master Class.”

“I teach all the time, as you do and as all of you do—whether we know it or not, whether we take responsibility for it or not,” she said. “I hold nothing back because I want to see that light go off. I like to see the children say, ‘I never thought of that before.’ And I think, ‘I’ve got them!'”

Winfrey released a statement Wednesday calling Angelou her mentor, “mother/sister” and friend.

“She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. The world knows her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her,” Winfrey said.

“But what stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. I loved her and I know she loved me. I will profoundly miss her. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”

Poetry after childhood tragedy

Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. She grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.

The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy that stunned her into silence for years. When she was 7, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He was beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him.

“My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she said.

From the silence, a louder voice was born.

In her poem “Caged Bird,” Angelou wrote:

“A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped

and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.”

Surrounded by greats

Angelou’s list of friends is as impressive as her illustrious career. She counted Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Winfrey and King, with whom she worked during the civil rights movement, among her friends. King was assassinated on her 40th birthday.

In an interview with CNN in January 2009, just days before President Obama was inaugurated for his first term, Angelou gave her thoughts about the United States’ election of its first black president.

“It was as if someone in the outer sphere said, ‘What can we do to really show how important Martin Luther King was?'”

Seeing Obama about to take office made her feel proud, she said.

“I’m excited. I’m hopeful. I’m talking all the time to people, and sometimes I’ve really said it so many times I wonder if I’m coming off like a piece of tape recording, but I’m very proud to be an American.

“In 30 or 40 years, (the election) will not be considered so incredibly important. … There will be other people in those next three or four decades who will run for the presidency — some women, some native American, some Spanish-speaking, some Asian. We’re about to grow up in this country.”

Obama remembered Angelou on Wednesday, saying she was “one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.”

He noted that she expressed her talents in many ways, but “above all, she was a storyteller” and “her greatest stories were true.”

The president said his own mother was so inspired by Angelou that she named his sister Maya.

In Los Angeles, iconic music producer Quincy Jones said he was saddened to have lost a “dear friend, colleague and sister.”

The two collaborated on two songs on Jones’ soundtrack for “For Love of Ivy” in 1968, he said, and working with her always “brought joy and love.”

A poem before Clinton’s inauguration

Author Tananarive Due, the Cosby Endowed Chair for the Humanities at Spelman College in Atlanta, remembered Angelou’s reading at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. She was the first poet to do so since Robert Frost in 1961. More notably, she was the first black woman to have such a prominent role. The poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” celebrates diversity of all people in America.

Again, Angelou was influencing popular culture. Her reading probably introduced a younger generation to her and her pivotal body of work.

“I felt like I belonged in my own nation — at last,” recalled Due. “She had a tremendous gift for choosing the right language to give us peace and power.”

The poem reads in part:

“A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed,

Marked the mastodon.

The dinosaur, who left dry tokens

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,

Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.”

‘A long journey’

In CNN’s 2009 interview, Angelou spoke in the way that she came to be famous for, each sentence a crescendo of emotion, a call to everyone to act and to be better.

“Our country needs us all right now to stand up and be counted. We need to try to be great citizens. We are necessary in this country, and we need to give something — that is to say, go to a local hospital, go to the children’s ward and offer to the nurse in charge an hour twice a month that you can give them reading children’s stories or poetry,” she said. “And go to an old folks’ home and read the newspaper to somebody. Go to your church or your synagogue or your mosque, and say, ‘I’d like to be of service. I have one hour twice a month.’

“You’ll be surprised at how much better you will feel,” she said. “And good done anywhere is good done everywhere.”

“Look where we’ve all come from … coming out of darkness, moving toward the light,” Angelou once said. “It is a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.”

43 comments

  • Gilbretta Ashton-Jones

    She was a phenomenal women whi gave us much inspiration. I treasure herwell lived life.

  • Leirum14

    Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May you rest in peace. Amen.

  • Jayn Albury

    SO sorry to think of the many many people who missed out on this amazing woman’ s knowledge. She did know why the caged bird sings….and shared that message with a lot of us who needed it.

  • tiffany

    Very powerful, inspirational woman, she leaves many powerful words to live by may she rest peacefully, forever.

  • MEG

    Maya Angelou was inspirational. She had a calming effect on you. She was royalty, and she made you feel like royalty even if you didn’t think you were in her league. What a loss to mankind, she was beautiful inside and out.

  • Cheryl Feaster

    A very wise women, her wisdom came from being honest about her journey, she a has left her heart print.

  • Kandace Cromartie

    Such a Sad Lost. She was well loved by Many. A Phenomenal Woman she was. Her Poems Inspired Me and Keep Me Going when i was having a Bad Day. May she Rest In Paradise. She will truly be Missed.

  • joyce

    I saw her do a reading at the University of Miami nearly 23 years ago, I was in awe! Rest in peace! You will surely be missed!

  • Laura Bellanger

    My heart is heavy, but God has called her home to rest. May the nation remember her as the ” Phenomenal Woman” who changed the lives of all that she touched. I loved her and will miss the sound of her voice. Rest in peace.

    • Laura

      She is from St. Louis, not Richmond. Get your facts straight before you make an unintelligent remark.

      • Ken Mitchell

        Don’t recall saying she was from Richmond, .do you? And was I wrong about my initial assessment?

    • Laura

      Well then your remark was irrelevant to the story. And yes, you were very wrong. Rediculously wrong. Just stop posting, you’re embarassing yourself. Whatever hatred you’re trying to spread is failing just as miserably as you are.

    • Jacqueline Howell

      Well, i’m from South Carolina, by way of New Jersey and you really can’t blame African-Americans for feeling the way they do. Virginia, and Richmond in particular has several “Slave Ports”. Richmond has a history that is rich in slavery…..

  • Zzizipho Vuyiswa Dhlamini

    From the ends of South Afrika, Dear Sisiter , dear mother dear grandma, dear comrade, dear fighter of the truth! Hamba Ka’khle ( Go well) please our regards to our Dear Madiba, Martin Luther, Malcolm X Marcus Garvey Rosa Parks, Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Chris hani, Kwame Nkurumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Hugo Chavez, T o All sons & Daughters of the Soil. The list is endless Go well and please let them know that we are stil in the economical strugglle.

    Yours in the trenches Zizipho Vuyiswa Dhlamini

  • Bobbi McBride

    Your work here on Earth is done. Now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Wear your crown with honor.

    • Shelly

      Good thing you aren’t. Upset that a black woman is getting so much praise and you will never mean as much as this woman did to the world. Upset that no one will care when you die? Have a good day. We love you too. Smile, it’s contagious.

      • Ken Mitchell

        Sad this “black” woman is totally irrelevant in this world, except to the low information voters. LOL

      • Shelly

        YEP, so irrelevant that she was invited to Presidential Inaugurations and continuously honored during her life and now after her death. So irrelevant that years from now people will be reciting her poetry and she is all over the news right now all over the world. No, you are the irrelevant one….but I didnt have to tell you that.

      • Ken Mitchell

        Give it up loon. She rode the victim train. And the democRATS used her like they have been using blacks for over 50 years. GET OVER IT!!!

  • Chris

    RIP David Alan Grier… Channel 6 uses a picture of a comedian playing Maya Angelou for this story? Wow…

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