US poet Maya Angelou dies at 86

Posted at 05/28/2014 9:59 PM | Updated as of 05/29/2014 10:24 AM
Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington in this February 15, 2011 file photo. Photo by Larry Downing, Reuters

WASHINGTON - (UPDATED) Celebrated African-American author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou died early Wednesday, her family said. She was 86.

Angelou is best known for memoirs that focused on her childhood and early adulthood, including "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" -- the first non-fiction best-seller by an African-American woman.

A friend of slain civil rights hero Martin Luther King, she was widely respected in the United States and abroad as a strong voice for both black people and women.

Her son Guy Johnson said his mother "passed quietly in her home" in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and expressed thanks that "her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension."

"She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace," he said in a statement.

"The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love," he said.

She had reportedly been in poor health recently, and cancelled a scheduled appearance in Texas later this week where she was to accept an honor.

'Listen to yourself'

"Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God," she wrote in what would become her last message on her @DrMayaAngelou Twitter account, posted on May 23.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in Saint Louis, Missouri, Angelou experienced hardship from an early age -- her parents' breakup, racial segregation and, at the age of seven or eight, rape at the hands of her mother's boyfriend.

She moved to San Francisco during World War II to study dance and acting, where she also held down a number of odd jobs -- including a stint as the city's first black female cable car conductor -- to support herself and a baby son.

In the early 1950s she briefly married a Greek sailor named Angelopulos. She tweaked his surname to come up with her own professional name, which she first used as a calypso dancer.

The same decade found Angelou on the stage, performing in off-Broadway theater and in a touring production of "Porgy and Bess." At the same time she became increasingly involved in the nascent civil rights movement, getting to know many of its key figures.

Travelled abroad

In the 1960s she traveled abroad, spending much of that tumultuous decade in Egypt and Ghana.

Upon returning to the United States, the African-American author James Baldwin encouraged her to put pen to paper with her remarkable life story -- encouragement that led to the 1969 publication of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which covered the first 17 years of her life.

A veritable cornucopia of books and poems would follow, as well as a screenplay (the 1972 Swedish-American drama "Georgia, Georgia") and an Emmy-nominated turn on the breakthrough US television miniseries "Roots" in 1977.

In January 1993, a newly-elected Bill Clinton invited her to recite one of her most famous poems, "On the Pulse of the Morning," at his presidential inauguration. The recorded version went on to win a Grammy award.

Praised as a Renaissance woman, Angelou made her debut as a director with the 1998 film "Down in the Delta," about a young big-city drug addict dispatched to the ancestral home in rural Mississippi where she discovers her family roots.

She also published cook books and, in 1996, narrated a Sesame Street children's film titled "Elmo Saves Christmas."

Barack Obama, the first African-American president, presented Angelou with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2011.

For many years Angelou taught American studies at Wake Forest University, a small liberal arts college, where students remembered her beginning classes by speaking Arabic, French or Latin.

She herself never went to college.

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