Maya Angelou, Author and Civil Rights Hero, Dead at 86

Novelist, poet, activist, and more was one of the most powerful voices of an era

Maya Angelou, obituary, dead, 86, author, poet, civil rights hero
Maya Angelou in 2010 Photo by Getty Images
Marc Hogan WRITTEN BY
Marc Hogan

Maya Angelou, the writer and civil rights activist whose bold and populist voice echoed across decades of American and global culture, has died. Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines told the local Fox 8 news station that the I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings memoirist was found at home by her caretaker early this morning (May 28). She was 86.

Angelou had recently canceled an event in her honor, citing an undisclosed illness. Wake Forest University, where she had served a professor since 1982, reportedly said it might anounce details about a campus memorial at a later date. "Dr. Angelou was a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world," the school said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Angelou's family and friends during this difficult time."

As poet, novelist, activist, educator, actress, singer, dancer, filmmaker, theatrical producer, and more, Angelou's influence is incalculable. "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel," she said, in one of her more oft-quoted statements. She famously recited a poem at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural ceremony, and in 2011 President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom.

Born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou split her youth between St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas, which was racially segrated. She fell into a multi-year silence after a tragedy at age 7: Her mother's boyfriend raped her, and not long after she testified against the man, he was killed. She said she felt as if her voice had killed him, so she stopped speaking. When her voice returned, it was with great strength, as she went on to write the 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

With friends ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Oprah Winfrey, Angelou's reach extended far beyond the world of music. But within it, too, her spirit could be felt. A cautionary voice against "vulgarity" in her later years, she could be considered a patron saint of conscious rap, a fact that was illuminated all the more when she differed with rapper Common in 2011 over his use of "the 'N' word." Fiona Apple, who has claimed Angelou as her hero, quoted the poet in a much-discussed 1997 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech. Queen Latifah read an Angelou poem at Michael Jackson's 2009 memorial. Kanye West referred to Angelou on Late Registration's "Hey Mama" and wrote in a 2010 blog post that he wanted to follow in her footsteps.

Asked in 2009 what from her long career was her proudest achievement, Angelou told The Des Moines Register: "I'm a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. I'm a teacher. I've been a wife. I've been a sister — those interactive relationships. I don't know about pride." 

Below, see Angelou reading her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. Scroll down to see her final tweet.

Play

From Associated Press:

00:00 00:00 No Song Selected More info
00:00 00:00
placeholder
Now Playing
  • 1 Parkay Quarts — Uncast Shadow Of A Southern Myth " 06:27
  • 2 Digitalism — Second Chance " 04:53
  • 3 Kiesza — Bad Thing Feat. Joey Bada$$ " 03:32

SPIN is a member of SPIN Music Group, a division of BUZZMEDIA