Poet, memoirist and performer Maya Angelou, whose commanding presence and impassioned truth-telling made her a groundbreaking and internationally beloved figure, died Wednesday at 86 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The author of "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," the first memoir by an African-American woman to capture the experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South, Angelou was also a celebrated civil rights pioneer.
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The book, Angelou's first, was written after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and with the encouragement of her friend James Baldwin. It told of her upbringing, facing racism and sexual abuse. The landmark work opened the door for a generation of black women writers, among them Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
As a poet, Angelou was best known for reading at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. She was one of only three poets awarded that honor, and the poem she composed for the occasion, "On the Pulse of Morning," sold more than 1 million copies in a small hardcover gift edition, and her audio recording won a Grammy Award.
News of her death was met by an outpouring of remembrances. President Barack Obama released a statement calling Angelou "one of the brightest lights of our time -- a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman." The president awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, explaining to the audience that his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, had been named for Angelou.
She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis and raised by her grandmother there and in Stamps, Arkansas. The family was subject to racism and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. In her memoir she described being raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was sent to jail for the crime; upon his release, he was beaten to death.
Angelou won a scholarship to an arts school in San Francisco, which she left briefly to become the city's first female African-American cable car conductor. She gave birth to a son, whom she raised on her own, shortly after graduating from high school.
In her early years, Angelou proved to be a multitalented performer. She toured Europe as a singer in the opera "Porgy and Bess," studied modern dance under Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey, recorded an album, "Calypso Lady." She took the stage name Maya Angelou from a childhood nickname and her married name at the time, Angelopulos.
From 1960 through 1964, she worked abroad, in Egypt and Ghana. She returned to the United States to help Malcolm X set up an African-American university shortly before his assassination. She was then enlisted by King to serve as a regional coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Angelou's creative career took off after the publication of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" -- she wrote articles, screenplays, short stories and songs. She continued to perform, getting a Tony Award nomination for her 1973 stage role in Jerome Kilty's "Look Away" and appearing in the 1977 television series "Roots."
Angelou's many books include the poetry collections "And Still I Rise," "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie," "Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well" and "I Shall Not Be Moved," six memoirs collected in a 2004 omnibus edition and a memoir published in 2013, "Mom & Me & Mom." Her 1993 essay collection, "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now," is dedicated to her close friend Oprah Winfrey.
She never attended college but received a slew of honorary degrees and was frequently addressed as Dr. Angelou. Since 1982 she was a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.
Though she became an iconic and beloved figure for her inspirational words of wisdom, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was a perennial on the American Library Association's list of works that draw complaints from parents and educators for its passages about rape and teenage pregnancy. Angelou didn't understand the fuss. She told The Associated Press, "I thought it was a mild book. There's no profanity."
Angelou remained active until shortly before her death. She stole the show at the National Book Awards in November last year, where she was introduced by Toni Morrison and serenaded the audience from her wheelchair. In December, she was commissioned by the State Department to write a commemorative poem for Nelson Mandela, a friend. The poem, "His Day Is Done," ends with the lines, "We will not forget you, we will not dishonor you, we will remember and be glad that you lived among us, that you taught us, and that you loved us all."
The words could be an epitaph for Maya Angelou as well.
With wire reports