World-renowned poet and essayist Maya Angelou died Wednesday at the age of 86 in her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Angelou, best known for her award-winning writing, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis.
She grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.
Although Angelou initially dropped out of high school, she went on to become a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Her public love and respect as a poet opened the doors to propel her into many other careers paths where she also excelled, including as an actress, director, playwright, composer, singer and dancer.
“I have created myself,” she told USA TODAY in 2007, “I have taught myself so much.”
Angelou spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco but dropped out of high school at age 14 to work as the city’s first African-American female cable car conductor.
Angelou later returned to high school to finish her diploma and gave birth a few weeks after graduation.
While the 17-year-old single mother waited tables to support her son, she acquired 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, “Calypso Lady.”
In 1954, she toured the world in the cast of Porgy and Bess. In 1960, she and comedian Godfrey Cambridge produced and starred in Cabaret Freedom, a benefit performance for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Angelou spoke at least six languages and worked at one time as a newspaper editor in Egypt and Ghana. It was during that time that she wrote “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which launched the first in a series of autobiographical books.
In 1977, she was nominated for an Emmy for her role in Roots, the TV miniseries.
She also wrote nine children’s books, 13 collections of poetry, four collections of essays, adapted I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for CBS in 1979, narrated the 1996 video, Elmo Saves Christmas, and complied a cookbook in 2004, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table.
Her other books include the volumes of poetry “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie” (1971), “Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well” (1975); “And Still I Rise” (1978) and “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?” (1983).
She dedicated her 1993 essay collection, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, to Oprah Winfrey, who hosted grand birthday parties for Angelou.
She wrote and delivered a poem at President Clinton’s 1993 inaugural. Her recording of that poem, On the Pulse of Morning, won a Grammy. In 1997, Oprah’s Book Club chose Angelou’s The Heart of a Woman, the fourth of her memoirs.
In November 2013, she was presented an award for “Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.” She was introduced that night by her friend, author Toni Morrison, who said of Angelou, “Suffering energized and strengthened her, and her creative impulse struck like bolts of lightning.”
Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines confirmed Angelou was found unconscious and not breathing by her caretaker the morning of Wednesday, May 28, 2014.
The family confirmed the news in a statement:
“Dr. Maya Angelou passed quietly in her home before 8:00 a.m. EST. Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
No immediate cause of death had been determined, but Angelou had been in frail health for some time and reportedly had heart problems.
Click here to watch Angelou read her poem ‘And I Still Rise.’
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”