American author and poet Maya Angelou died this morning at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., her son Guy B. Johnson said in a statement. The 86-year-old had been a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University since 1982.
“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being,” Johnson said. “She was a warrior for equality, tolerance, and peace.”
Angelou had been set to appear this week at the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon, but canceled in recent days citing an unspecified illness.
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, Ark., and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother. At age 7, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend and didn't talk for years. She learned by reading, and listening.
“I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: ‘Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,’” she told the AP. “It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And ‘Deep River.’ Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about 7 1/2, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library. … And I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it.”
At age 9, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel, married, and divorced.
After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage (“Maya” was a childhood nickname, “Angelou” a variation of her husband's name), she toured in Porgy and Bess and Jean Genet’s The Blacks and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Nelson Mandela, who became a longtime friend, and Malcolm X, to whom she remained close until his assassination, in 1965. Three years later, she was helping Martin Luther King Jr. organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.
Angelou published her first work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970. She appeared on several TV programs, notably the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her appearance in the play Look Away. She directed the film Down in the Delta, about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta. She won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community.
She read her poem On the Pulse of the Morning at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993 and another poem, Amazing Peace for President George W. Bush at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Presidents honored her in return with a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.
As she approached her 80th birthday, she decided to study at the Missouri-based Unity Church, which emphasizes healing through prayer and believes every person has a kind of “divine potential.”