(CNN) – 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 agent added that she has been “frail” and suffering from heart problems.
The 86-year-old was a novelist, actress, professor, singer, dancer and activist. In 2010, President Barack Obama named her the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
One of Angelou’s most praised books was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
The memoir bore witness to the brutality of a Jim Crow South, portraying racism in stark language. Readers learned of the life of Marguerite Ann Johnson (Angelou’s birth name) up to the age of 16: how she was abandoned by her parents and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She was homeless and became a teen mother.
Its publication was both daring and historic given the era of its debut in 1969.
“All of the writers of my generation must honor the ground broken by Dr. Maya Angelou,” author Tayari Jones posted on her Facebook page Wednesday.
“She told a story that wasn’t allowed to be told,” Jones said. “Now, people tell all sorts of things in memoir, but when she told the truth, she challenged a taboo — not for shock value, but to heal us all.”
Black American novelist Julian Mayfield is said to have described the autobiography as “a work of art which eludes description.”
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was an international bestseller and nominated for a National Book Award in 1970. In six other autobiographical books she subsequently penned, Angelou revealed myriad interests and occupations of her life.
People of all ages and backgrounds took to social media to say what her life’s work meant to them.
Adrian Sean of Detroit posted a CNN iReport tribute, saying, “I cannot describe the feeling I had when I read ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ for the first time, and knew someone else in the world had been through extreme hardships just as I had.
“She not only survived, but she thrived just by being herself,” she said. “Maya Angelou was and still is a teacher, a mentor, and a friend to me. Her impact on my life will always have a special place in my heart.”
From a dropout to Dr. Angelou
Angelou spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco but dropped out of school at age 14.
When she was 16, Angelou became San Francisco’s first female streetcar driver.
Angelou later returned to high school to get her diploma. She gave birth a few weeks after graduation. While the 17-year-old single mother waited tables to support her son, she developed a passion for music and dance, and toured Europe in the mid-1950s in the opera production “Porgy and Bess.”
In 1957, she recorded her first album, “Miss Calypso.”
In 1958, Angelou become a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and played a queen in “The Blacks,” an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet.
“I created myself,” Angelou once said. “I have taught myself so much.”
Affectionately referred to as Dr. Angelou, 6-foot-tall professor never went to college. She has more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.
“Maya Angelou has been a towering figure — at Wake Forest and in American culture. She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation,” Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch said Wednesday. “We will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights.”
Angelou spoke at least six languages and worked as a newspaper editor in Egypt and Ghana. It was during that time that she wrote “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the first in a series of autobiographical books.
“I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine … before she realizes she’s reading,” Angelou said.
Poetry after childhood tragedy
Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. She grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.
The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy that stunned her into silence for years. When she was 7, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He was beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him.
“My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she said.
From the silence, a louder voice was born.
In her poem “Caged Bird,” Angelou wrote: “A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped
and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.”
Surrounded by greats
Angelou’s list of friends is as impressive as her illustrious career. Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey referred to her as “sister friend.” She counted Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she worked during the civil rights movement, among her friends. King was assassinated on her birthday.
In an interview with CNN in January 2009, just days before President Obama was inaugurated for his first term, she gave her thoughts about the United States’ election of its first black president.
“It was as if someone in the outer sphere said, ‘What can we do to really show how important Martin Luther King was?'”
Seeing Obama about to take office made her feel proud, she said.
“I’m excited. I’m hopeful. I’m talking all the time to people, and sometimes I’ve really said it so many times I wonder if I’m coming off like a piece of tape recording, but I’m very proud to be an American.
“In 30 or 40 years, (the election) will not be considered so incredibly important. … There will be other people in those next three or four decades who will run for the presidency — some women, some native American, some Spanish-speaking, some Asian. We’re about to grow up in this country.”
Obama remembered Angelou on Wednesday, saying she was “one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.”
He noted that she expressed her talents in many ways, but “above all, she was a storyteller” and “her greatest stories were true.”
The president said his own mother was so inspired by Angelou that she named his sister Maya.
In Los Angeles, iconic music producer Quincy Jones said he was saddened to have lost a “dear friend, colleague and sister.”
The two collaborated on two songs on Jones’ soundtrack for “For Love of Ivy” in 1968, he said, and working with her always “brought joy and love.”
A poem before Clinton’s inauguration
Author Tananarive Due, the Cosby Endowed Chair for the Humanities at Spelman College in Atlanta, remembered Angelou’s reading at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. She was the first poet to do so since Robert Frost in 1961. More notably, she was the first black woman to have such a prominent role. The poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” celebrates diversity of all people in America.
Again, Angelou was influencing popular culture. Her reading probably introduced a younger generation to her and her pivotal body of work.
“I felt like I belonged in my own nation — at last,” recalled Due. “She had a tremendous gift for choosing the right language to give us peace and power.”
The poem reads in part:
“A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no more hiding place down here.”
‘A long journey’
In CNN’s 2009 interview, Angelou spoke in the way that she came to be famous for, each sentence a crescendo of emotion, a call to everyone to act and to be better.
“Our country needs us all right now to stand up and be counted. We need to try to be great citizens. We are necessary in this country, and we need to give something — that is to say, go to a local hospital, go to the children’s ward and offer to the nurse in charge an hour twice a month that you can give them reading children’s stories or poetry,” she said. “And go to an old folks’ home and read the newspaper to somebody. Go to your church or your synagogue or your mosque, and say, ‘I’d like to be of service. I have one hour twice a month.’
“You’ll be surprised at how much better you will feel,” she said. “And good done anywhere is good done everywhere.”
Angelou was also one of the first black female film directors. Her work on Broadway has been nominated for Tony Awards.
“Look where we’ve all come from … coming out of darkness, moving toward the light,” she once said. “It is a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.”
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Todd Leopold and Marlena Baldacci contributed to this report.
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