Maya Angelou, poet, author and activist, dead at 86
U.S. activist known as a 'national treasure' earned acclaim for memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Celebrated American poet, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, the cultural force known for her autobiographical book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has died at the age of 86.
Angelou died Wednesday morning at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., according to a statement from her son, Guy Johnson.
"She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace," he said.
No cause of death was immediately announced, but her longtime literary agent, Helen Brann, has said Angelou had been in frail health for some time.
"Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement Wednesday afternoon, noting that Angelou's urging for people "to be our best selves" included inspiring his mother to name his sister Maya after the writer.
"Like so many others, Michelle and I will always cherish the time we were privileged to spend with Maya. With a kind word and a strong embrace, she had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer."
On Friday, Major League Baseball announced that Angelou, who was to be honoured at this week's 2014 MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon in Houston, had withdrawn due to undisclosed health reasons. The event is typically held before the league's annual Civil Rights Game.
She had also cancelled attending a recent event in Arkansas, citing her recovery from an "unexpected ailment" that had sent her to hospital.
A life fully lived
A multifaceted woman of many talents, the regal Angelou lived a full, intensely varied life. Rising from a poor upbringing in rural Arkansas to become an American icon widely considered a national treasure, Angelou was a poet, author, performer, educator and activist for civil rights.
What I really want to do is be a representative of my race — of the human race. I have a chance to show how kind we can be, how intelligent and generous we can be. I have a chance to teach and to love and to laugh. 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.- Maya Angelou
Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised both in Stamps, Ark., and San Francisco — shuttled between her parents and her grandmother — Angelou was a childhood victim of rape who stopped speaking for years after her attacker was beaten to death following her testimony against him. Mute, she turned to books and began writing poetry at the age of nine.
Studying dance and drama in her early teens, she dropped out of high school at 14, but returned and graduated by 17, around the time she also had her son. As a young, single mother, she worked as a stripper and ran a brothel to support her family.
Soon, however, she shifted to work as a singer and dancer, associating with the likes of Phyllis Diller and Billie Holiday, and touring in a production of Porgy and Bess. She renamed herself Maya Angelou.
She spent some time living in Egypt and Ghana, where she met and befriended Nelson Mandela. She also knew Malcolm X and, during her time working with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was helping the civil rights group organize the Poor People's March in Memphis when King was killed in 1968 — his death came on Angelou's 40th birthday.
At a party some years later, Angelou met a book editor who dared her to pen a literary autobiography. Published in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings vaulted her into fame and made her one of the first African-American women to pen a bestselling book. She would eventually publish half a dozen memoirs.
Though perhaps best known for her poetry collections and autobiographical works, Angelou's writing extended to essays, screenplays, stage plays, cookbooks, children's stories and tomes of advice as well. She also wrote music, released an album titled Miss Calypso and had a line of greeting cards.
She maintained ties to the performing world over the years, appearing in the stage play Look Away (earning a Tony nomination) and in the landmark TV miniseries Roots (earning an Emmy nomination), and directing the film Down in the Delta. Three of her spoken word albums won Grammy Awards and, in recent years, she hosted a satellite radio show for the Oprah & Friends network.
The role of poets and artists is "to show ourselves at our best — as we understand the best to be to each other — and show ourselves with courage and with courtesy... I could weep at the need for courtesy between human beings," Angelou told CBC's Evan Solomon in 2008.
Angelou shared advice with, guided and mentored a wide range of figures, from college students, to rapper Tupac Shakur, to Nobel-winner Toni Morrison and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
"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 in a statement.
"She won three Grammys, spoke six languages and was the second poet in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. 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."
Chosen to appear at former U.S. president Bill Clinton's first inauguration in 1993, Angelou created an original composition for the day, On the Pulse of Morning. Her confident delivery and hopeful poem was a sensation and became a rare bestseller for poetry.
Beginning in 1982, Angelou served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
"Dr. Angelou was a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world," the school said in a statement Wednesday morning.
Over her lifetime, she was awarded dozens of honorary degrees. Other accolades included receiving:
- The U.S. National Medal of Arts.
- The Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest U.S. honour possible for American civilians) in 2011.
- An honorary National Book Award in 2013.
"What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love," Angelou told an interviewer in 1985, when asked what she'd like to read in her own obituary.
"By love, I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings."
She echoed the same sentiment in an interview with CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos in 2013.
"What I really want to do is be a representative of my race — of the human race," she said during an interview from her North Carolina home.
"I have a chance to show how kind we can be, how intelligent and generous we can be. I have a chance to teach and to love and to laugh. 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."
With files from Reuters and The Associated Press