Acclaimed author, poet and activist Maya Angelou has died following a lengthy illness at the age of 86. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, Angelou reportedly passed at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she was found by a caretaker.
Her death follows a colorful life and storied literary career punctuated by her first and most famous memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – a candid tome that chronicled her childhood in the segregated south and the experience of being raped at the age of 7, which prompted her refusal to speak for years. The book ends with the birth of Angelou’s son Guy, whom she gave birth to at the age of 17.
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, MO and raised in Stamps, Arkansas before being shipped off to California after sassing a white store clerk. During her time in California, she became the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Angelou danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel and was married and divorced in her early-twenties. Her name was a combination of the nickname “Maya”, which she received from her brother Bailey and Angelou – a play on Angelos, her first husband’s last name. She would go on to share early billing with Phyllis Diller and Billie Holiday before touring with Porgy And Bess, dancing with Alvin Ailey and studying under Martha Graham.
She worked as an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement as a coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and contemporary of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and fellow griot Amiri Baraka; the death of Angelou is a significant loss, which likely compounds the grief lingering above the arts, activism and literary communities since Baraka’s death in January.
Angelou also acted as a mentor to younger artists and leaders, offering advice and friendship to a host of people including Oprah Winfrey, who has famously referred to her as a “sister-friend”, and Common; Angelou appeared on Common’s The Dreamer/The Believer LP, performing the album intro entitled “The Dreamer.” The words she offers on the track are a resounding testament to the highs of her life and the importance of her voice which, above all else, has charged the world to dare to dream.
A true renaissance woman and scion of the arts, Angelou’s resume includes not only literary works but screenwriting, directing, and acting credits for Georgia, Georgia, Down In The Delta and Roots. Maya Angelou served a lifetime appointment as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University and worked actively on the lecture circuit until shortly before her death; Angelou was scheduled to receive the Beacon of Life Award at the 2014 MLB Beacon Award Luncheon, but canceled her appearance due to health problems.
Maya Angelou has been honored with over 30 degrees and 50 awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry. Angelou won three Grammy Awards for her spoken word albums and received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her 1971 book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie. She also catapulted a poem to the best-seller’s list after reciting “On The Pulse Of Morning” for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
We remember her life as a phenomenal woman and close with the words of that piece, which rippled across the nation at the time of their delivery and will continue, as with every other word she has authored, to resound:
Rest in peace, Dr. Maya Angelou. We join the world in celebrating your life.