Maya Angelou, a renowned educator, poet and novelist died at age 86 in her Winston-Salem, North Carolina home, her literary agent, Helen Brann, said Wednesday, CNN.com reports.
The famed poet started writing after a childhood trauma that made her go silent for years. When she was 7, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He was later beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him, CNN reports.
“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.
Angelou spoke at least six languages, and worked as a newspaper editor in Ghana and Egypt. During that period in 1969 she wrote “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” one of her most famous books that was the first in a seven-volume series of autobiographies.
The book illustrates how love of literature and strength of character can help overcome racism and trauma. It depicted her early years, and became part of the curriculum at high schools and universities.
Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially-segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.
Her career included multiple professions: professor, singer, dancer, cable-car conductor. She studied drama and dance in San Francisco until age 14, later becoming the city’s first black female cable car conductor.
A high school dropout, she later returned to finish her diploma and had a child a few weeks after graduation. The 17-year-old single mother worked as a waitress to support her son. Remaining connected to music and dance, she toured Europe in the mid-1950s with the opera production “Porgy and Bess.” In 1957, she recorded her first album, “Calypso Lady.”
Angelou become a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York in 1958 and also played a queen in “The Blacks,” an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet.
One of the first black female film directors, her work on Broadway was nominated for Tony Awards.
Known to her students as Dr. Angelou, the professor taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem but never went to college. She was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees, CNN reports.
“I created myself,” she has said. “I have taught myself so much.”
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the country’s highest civilian honor — the Medal of Freedom.
“I am who I am because God loves me,” she told talk show host Oprah Winfrey in an interview on OWN.
Angelou included Winfrey in her list of friends. Winfrey referred to Angelou as “sister friend.” Angelou also counted Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she worked during the Civil Rights movement, among her friends. King was assassinated on her birthday, CNN reports.
Before becoming famous, the six-foot-tall wordsmith sang with a traveling road show and worked as a cook. “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.”
Of her writing ambitions, Angelou said, “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.”
Social media reactions to Maya Angelou’s death include the following published in ChicagoTribune:
J.K. Rowling @jk_rowling: “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Maya Angelou –who was utterly amazing.
Uzo Aduba @UzoAduba: “To Dr. Maya Angelou…thank you. For everything.”
Mary J. Blige @maryjblige: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou.
Arianna Huffington @ariannahuff: “#RIP Maya Angelou, who reminded us “Nothing can dim the light which shines from within”
Kelendria Rowland @KELLYROWLAND: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — RIP Maya Angelou
Condoleezza Rice @CondoleezzaRice: “Maya Angelou was a national treasure. She will be missed but not forgotten. #RIPMayaAngelou”