Author and Poet Maya Angelou Dies at 86

We are deeply saddened to report that Maya Angelou, 86, died this morning in North Carolina.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Maya Angelou is best know for her work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which focused on her own life, in 1969.  Nominated for a National Book Award, the title launched Angelou to national fame — especially given the controversial nature of the publication, which dealt with child molestation, racism, and sexuality.

“I thought that it was a mild book. There’s no profanity,” Angelou told the Associated Press. “It speaks about surviving, and it really doesn’t make ogres of many people. I was shocked to find there were people who really wanted it banned, and I still believe people who are against the book have never read the book.”

Teacher, activist, artist and friend are words commonly used to describe this warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.

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, was married, and then divorced. But by her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She also spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou’s son, Guy, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”

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, a longtime friend; and Malcolm X, to whom she remained close until his assassination, in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.

Angelou 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.

In 2002, Angelou communicated in an unexpected way when she launched a line of greeting cards with industry giant Hallmark. Angelou admitted she was cool to the idea at first. Then she went to Loomis, her editor at Random House.

“I said, ‘I’m thinking about doing something with Hallmark,'” she recalled. “And he said, ‘You’re the people’s poet. You don’t want to trivialize yourself.’ So I said ‘OK’ and I hung up. And then I thought about it. And I thought, if I’m the people’s poet, then I ought to be in the people’s hands — and I hope in their hearts. So I thought, ‘Hmm, I’ll do it.'”

A favorite of many presidents, She spoke at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton and was awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 2000. In 2011, President Barack Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Despite never having attended College, she had earned over 30 honorary doctorate degrees.

At the time of her death, Angelou lived in North Carolina in an 18-room house and taught American Studies at Wake Forest University. She was also a member of the board of trustees for Bennett College, a private school for black women in Greensboro.

Over her entire life, she would publish more than 30 works, including five more memoirs and many books of poetry.

She will be deeply missed and forever remembered.