RIP #MayaAngelou, the American poet and author, died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Wednesday. She was 86.
Her son, Guy B Johnson, confirmed the news in a statement. He said: “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 appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
Johnson said Angelou “passed quietly in her home” sometime before 8am on Wednesday.
Bill Clinton, at whose inauguration Angelou read her On the Pulse of the Morning, said in a statement: “America has lost a national treasure, and Hillary and I a beloved friend.”
Angelou’s failing health was reported as recently as Tuesday, when she canceled an appearance honoring her with a Beacon of Life Award because of “health reasons”. The ceremony was part of the 2014 MLB Beacon Award Luncheon, in Houston, Texas, part of Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Games.
Last month, forced to cancel an appearance at a library in Arkansas, she wrote: “An unexpected ailment put me into the hospital. I will be getting better and the time will come when I can receive another invitation from my state and you will recognize me for I shall be the tall Black lady smiling. I ask you to please keep me in your thoughts, in your conversation and in your prayers.”
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928. She described in an NPR interview how her brother’s lisp turned Marguerite into Maya.
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She survived several personal trials: she was a child of the depression, grew up in the segregated south, survived a childhood rape, gave birth as a teenager, and was, at one time, a prostitute.
She wrote wrote seven autobiographies, including the 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and was a playwright, director, actor, singer, songwriter and novelist.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was an indictment of the racial discrimination she experienced during her childhood. “If growing up is painful for the southern black girl,” she wrote, “being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has had a wide appeal, particularly to younger female readers and continues to appear on school and university reading lists in the US and the UK.
In 1993, she read On the Pulse of the Morning at President Clinton’s first inauguration, a performance that made the poem a bestseller. The poem celebrates the diversity of ethnic groups in the US, and calls on the nation to leave behind cynicism and look forward to a new pride in itself, and a new dawn for the country.
Clinton on Wednesday said he would “always be grateful for her electrifying reading … and even more for all the years of friendship that followed.”
Angelou was a long-time Clinton supporter. One month before his inauguration, she told the New York Times: “Since the election, I have found it easier to wake up in the morning,” and “there seems to be a promise in the air.”
And her loyalty to Hillary Clinton has been steadfast, even as Barack Obama campaigned to be America’s first black president.
“I made up my mind 15 years ago that if she ever ran for office I’d be on her wagon. My only difficulty with Senator Obama is that I believe in going out with who I went in with,” she told the Guardian.
Actors, writers, directors, activists and politicians shared thankful and mournful notes in response to Angelou’s death.
JK Rowling called her “utterly amazing”; Lena Dunham thanked Angelou for “your power, your politics, your poetry. We need you more than ever.”
Angelou had lived in North Carolina since the early 1980s, when she became a professor at Wake Forest University, a private liberal arts college. A statement from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem called Angelou “a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world”.
The mayor of Winston-Salem, Allen Joines, said the town would probably remember Angelou best for her commitment to health and theatre.
She supported the founder of the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, and eventually became its first chairperson in 1989. In 2012, the Maya Angelou Women’s Health and Wellness Center opened in the city. A street in Winston-Salem is named after Angelou.
Despite her many accomplishments, the mayor said small moments seemed to touch the poet.
In April 2008, the town threw Angelou an 80th birthday party. Despite entertainers and speakers present at the party, the mayor said, “The thing that seemed to touch her the most was a group of little kids.”