Dr. Maya Angelou, writer and poet, dies at age 86
Dr. Maya Angelou, writer and poet, dies at age 86

Dr. Maya Angelou, writer and poet, dies at age 86

A literary voice revered globally for her poetic command and her commitment to civil rights has fallen silent.

Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Wednesday, said her literary agent, Helen Brann.

The 86-year-old was a novelist, actress, professor, singer, dancer and activist. In 2010, President Barack Obama named her the recipient of the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Angelou, who lived in Winston-Salem and was the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, was best known for her six autobiographical works and her poems, including “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she read at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. But she also wrote plays, screenplays and television scripts.

She was an introspective person, who sometimes holed up in a hotel room with a deck of cards to play solitaire as she wrote. But Angelou was also a born entertainer who loved a crowd and recorded calypso songs, sang, danced and acted.

Angelou’s tale of struggle, survival and triumph resonated with readers. In all of her work, she emphasized the commonality of human experience.

“Human beings are more alike than we are unalike,” Angelou was fond of saying.

Angelou proved that saying. Over the years, she appeared local and national stages with a wide range of notables, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928. Her older brother Bailey gave her the nickname Maya. She adopted the last name of Angelou during the early 1950s when she began performing as a dancer and singer. The name was a variation on her first husband’s, Tosh Angelos’, surname.

Angelou first found fame with her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The book was published in 1969, and was nominated for the National Book Award.

The book told the story of her childhood in the 1930s and ’40s. Angelou and her brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Ark. when Johnson was 3 years old.

There, a young Angelou was exposed to the racism and poverty of the Deep South, but also the strength and sustenance of family ties and the Baptist church.


“You have to really have grit if you are to grow up and survive in Arkansas,” Angelou later said of her experiences there.

In searing prose, Angelou described her journey from Arkansas to St. Louis, where she and Bailey were sent to live with her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson. There she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 7.

Her mother’s boyfriend was convicted of the crime, but was released the same day. Soon after, he was found beaten to death. Angelou feared that her words had caused the man’s death and she barely spoke for the next six years.

Angelou returned to Stamps, where a local woman, Bertha Flowers, encouraged her interests in reading and writing.

Angelou admired the works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.

“Caged Bird” ends with the birth of Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, himself a writer.
During the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Angelou lived a peripatetic life.
She toured Africa and Europe as a featured dancer in a production of “Porgy and Bess.”

Writing begins

Angelou had begun writing while living in Los Angeles. At first she wrote song lyrics, then poetry and short stories. She met the author, John O. Killens and showed him some of her work.

The writer John O. Killens urged Angelou to come to New York and join the Harlem Writers Guild after reading her work. The Guild was founded in 1950 by a group of writers, scholars and activists that included Killens, Rosa Guy and others.

Meetings were hosted in the homes of members and everyone shared their work and received criticism.

“Caged Bird” not only gained national attention, the book got the attention of black students at a small Baptist college in the South, who invited Angelou to campus to speak during Black Awareness week in 1973.

Angelou had said that she will never formally retire because that would mean pulling back from life.


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