Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from US President
Barack Obama at the White House in Washington in February
2011. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files
American author and poet Maya Angelou, whose
groundbreaking memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" earned
her international acclaim with its unflinching account of rape
and racism in the segregated South, has died aged 86.
The prolific African-American writer, known for her lyrical
prose and regal speaking voice, died quietly at her home in
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Angelou's family said in a
statement. No cause of death was given.
Major League Baseball had planned to honour her in Houston on
Friday as part of the Civil Rights Game festivities, but
Angelou announced last week that she would be unable to
attend due to health reasons.
Angelou, who was also a civil rights activist, playwright,
actress, singer, dancer and professor during her varied
career, penned more than 30 books and won numerous awards,
including the country's highest civilian honour, the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama in
Her latest work, "Mom & Me & Mom," about her mother
and grandmother and what they taught her, was released last
year. In her last tweet on May 23, Angelou said, "Listen to
yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of
Literary and entertainment figures, politicians and fans
mourned her passing on Wednesday.
Obama said his sister, Maya, was named for the author, whom
he called "a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly
"A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to
stop speaking - but the voice she found helped generations of
Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired
the rest of us to be our best selves," Obama said in a
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who frequently threw lavish
birthday parties for Angelou and considered her a mentor,
said she would remember her friend most for how she lived her
"She moved through the world with unshakeable calm,
confidence and a fierce grace," Winfrey said.
Angelou, who was 6 feet tall, was born Marguerite Johnson in
St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. She spent part of her
childhood in Stamps, Arkansas with her grandmother after her
At age 7, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who
was later beaten to death in an assault that some believed
was carried out by Angelou's uncles. The trauma of the rape
and her assailant's death left Angelou mute for six years.
She began writing during that silent period. She would
chronicle the first 17 years of her life in the 1969
autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which her
friend, writer James Baldwin, had encouraged her to write.
The book, which covers the racism Angelou had faced in the
1930s and '40s and her fantasies of being blond and white, is
considered an American classic.
She never went to college but collected more than 30 honorary
degrees. As a teenager Angelou moved to San Francisco, where
she pursued an entertainment career, became an unwed mother
at 17 and also found a job as a streetcar conductor.
Working as a calypso singer and dancer, she changed her name
to Maya Angelou - based on a childhood nickname and the last
name of her first of at least three husbands, Tosh Angelos.
In the late 1950s she moved to New York and joined the Harlem
Writers Guild before going to Africa, where she worked for
newspapers in Cairo and Accra, Ghana.
In subsequent years she mixed writing with singing and
working on projects with civil rights leaders Martin Luther
King Jr. and Malcolm X. For years she did not celebrate her
birthday because it coincided with the anniversary of King's
Angelou also directed, wrote and acted in movies, plays and
television programs and was a songwriter, educator and
popular lecturer. Her acting credits included a role in the
ground-breaking television mini-series "Roots" and she wrote
the script and score for the movie "Georgia, Georgia."
She was a Grammy winner for three spoken-word albums.
Nathan O. Hatch, the president of Wake Forest University,
where Angelou had been a professor of American studies since
1982, said she was a "towering figure" at the school and in
American culture with a profound influence in civil rights
and racial reconciliation.
In addition to "Mom & Me & Mom," Angelou's other
autobiographical works included "Gather Together in My Name,"
"Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas," "A
Song Flung Up to Heaven," "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My
Journey Now," "The Heart of a Woman" and "All God's Children
Need Traveling Shoes."
At Bill Clinton's request, Angelou wrote "On the Pulse of
Morning" and recited the poem at his 1993 presidential
"We share the gratitude of so many for Dr. Angelou's
contributions to literature, human rights, and social
justice. Her legacy is one that all writers and readers
across the world can admire and aspire to," said Harold
Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book