Maya Angelou, renaissance woman, dies at 86

BY Ellen Rolfes  May 28, 2014 at 11:26 AM EST
Photo by Flickr user York College ISLGP

Photo by Flickr user York College ISLGP

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies;
You may trod me in the very dirt;
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

Renaissance woman and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86.

Angelou passed away at her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines confirmed Angelou’s death to local media and said that she was found by her caretaker on Wednesday morning.

Angelou had been suffering from long-term health problems and had canceled appearances at recent events because of her ailments.

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis. “Maya” had been a nickname given by her brother.

In her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou told the story of her childhood, growing up in St. Louis, Long Beach, California, and Stamps, Arkansas. One of the most controversial parts told of when Angelou went mute at seven-and-a-half after her mother’s boyfriend, who had raped her, had been murdered. She did not speak for more than five years, but it was during formative years of silence, Angelou said, that she fell in love with language.

I thought my voice had killed the man. And I thought if I spoke, my voice might just go out and kill anybody, randomly,” Angelou said in a 2008 interview. “So I learned to read and I read every book I could find. And I memorized.”

As an adult, Angelou worked with Martin Luther King Jr. as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She continued to write about civil rights and racism, never shying away from taboo subjects such as sex, abuse and violence.

In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, Maya Angelou explained what it was like to personally experience racial discrimination.

“A black person grows up in this country — and in many places — knowing that racism will be as familiar as salt to the tongue. Also, it can be as dangerous as too much salt. I think that you must struggle for betterment for yourself and for everyone. It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air; we all have it or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.”

Angelou’s talent could not be confined to just one medium. Throughout her life, she was a poet, novelist, dancer, playwright, actor and educator. She has written autobiographies, poems, children’s books, essays, plays and screenplays. Angelou has been awarded more than 50 honorary degrees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

Watch Angelou recite her poem, “And Still I Rise“: