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Maya Angelou poet, author, teacher, activist passes at age 86

One of the defining voices of modern literature and poetry, Dr. Maya Angelou passed away today in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The 86 year old Dr. Angelou had been suffering from heart ailments.

Maya Angelou at a 2010 Appearance
Maya Angelou at a 2010 Appearance
Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

Angelou was a committed activist and a poet of breathtaking proportions. She was nominated for a Tony award, authored a powerful memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," novels and a cookbook titled "Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes." She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010 by President Barack Obama and in 1993 was the first African American woman to deliver a poem at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration. That poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” celebrates American diversity.

Her life was not always an easy one, filled with both joy and brutality. Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis and spent her childhood in both St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas during the period of segregation. As a seven year old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She testified against him and he was beaten to death by a mob after her testimony. "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. It was her loss of a physical voice that allowed her to discover her literary voice.

Angelou studied drama and dance, but dropped out of school at 14. By age 16, she became the first female streetcar driver in San Francisco. She returned to High School, giving birth a few months before graduating. In the mid 1950s, she toured Europe in a production of “Porgy and Bess.” She spoke six languages despite never going to college. She was a civil rights activist who called Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X friends.

Angelou’s memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," tells of the brutality of the Jim Crow South in stark language. It shares the story of Marguerite Ann Johnson (Angelou's birth name) until the age of 16 – her rape, her homelessness, her teen motherhood. When it debuted in 1969, it was groundbreaking. It shared subjects that had been taboo and opened discussion on the topics. The work became an an international bestseller and was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970. The book remains on many school reading lists, and has been banned more than once. In the years since, Dr. Angelou was awarded more than thirty honorary degrees. She taught American studies at Wake Forest University.

Oprah Winfrey stated “what stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it's how she lived her life. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. I loved her and I know she loved me. I will profoundly miss her. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds."

Obama said of Angelou today she was "one of the brightest lights of our time -- a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman…above all, she was a storyteller…her greatest stories were true." The president said his own mother was so inspired by Angelou she chose the name Maya for his sister.

Earlier today, her son, Guy B. Johnson released a statement on her website: 

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.