Maya Angelou, the celebrated poet, writer and activist who rose from a childhood of poverty in Arkansas to become an American literary icon, died Wednesday morning at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., at the age of 86, her literary agent said.
US President Barack Obama has led the tributes to Maya Angelou, describing the poet, author and activist as “one of the brightest lights of our time”. He hailed Angelou as “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman”.
She made her name with the memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, which charted a childhood of oppression and abuse in the Deep South in the 1930s.
Her family described her as “a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace”. In a statement on Facebook, they said she passed away quietly at home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at 08:00 EST (12:00 GMT).
“Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belaboured by a loss of acuity or comprehension,” they said. “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being… The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
Mr Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award, in 2011.
He said: “Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things – an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer. But above all, she was a storyteller – and her greatest stories were true.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings dealt with the racism and family trauma of Angelou’s upbringing. 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.”
Raised by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of seven. After she told her family what had happened, the boyfriend was killed. “I thought my voice had killed him, so it was better not to speak – so I simply stopped speaking,” she said. She remained mute for five years, but read voraciously.
Former President Bill Clinton, who invited Angelou to read at his 1993 inauguration, said America had lost a national treasure and he and wife Hillary had lost “a beloved friend”.
“The poems and stories she wrote and read to us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace,” he said. “I will always be grateful for her electrifying reading of On the Pulse of Morning at my first inaugural, and even more for all the years of friendship that followed.”
After the poverty, violence and segregation of her childhood, she became a singer, a dancer, cocktail waitress, prostitute and an actress before beginning her writing career. Her career had many outlets, straddling television, theatre, film, children’s books and music.
Angelou was also a prominent civil rights activist and a friend of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Through her writing and interviews, her strength and eloquence as a role model for those seeking to overcome inequality and injustice won her many admirers.
Helen Brann, who was Ms. Angelou’s agent for close to 35 years, said that Ms. Angelou was in the midst of writing a new book and was in good spirits when the pair spoke yesterday. “She sounded as she always did. She sounded vital and interested in her new book which we were talking about,” said Ms. Brann. “It’s a terrific book, a memoir.” The book was unfinished.
Ms. Angelou had suffered from poor health recently. In a post on her Facebook page on May 26, she wrote, “An unexpected medical emergency caused me the greatest disappointment of having to cancel my visit to the Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game ceremony. I am so proud to be selected as its honoree. However, my doctors told me it would be unadvisable for me to travel at that time. My thanks to Robin Roberts for speaking up for me and thank you for all your prayers. I am each day better.”
Robert Loomis, Ms. Angelou’s editor of more than 40 years, said in a statement, “Maya, a dear friend, helped change our hearts and minds about the African-American experience in the United States, bringing it to vivid life, and her spirit and energy crossed all borders and deeply affected readers around the world.”
Ms. Angelou had been a professor of American studies at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University since the early 1980s. She learned several languages and published 36 books, including volumes of poetry, essay collections, cookbooks and children’s stories. She won the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and in 2013 she received an award for outstanding service to the American literary community at the National Book Awards.
She’s survived by her son, Guy Johnson. In a statement posted on her Facebook page, he wrote, “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.
Sources: BBC News & The Wall Street Journal