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.”
By Todd Leopold, Ashley Fantz, Moni Basu and Faith Karimi, courtesy CNN