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Maya Angelou, one of the most respected cultural figures of her generation, has died at the age of 86. Her debut memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” made her one of the first bestselling African-American female authors. Jeffrey Brown reports on how an early trauma made her turn toward books and how she learned to use her voice to explore the effects of racism and sexism on identity.
Finally tonight: remembering author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.
Jeffrey Brown has our appreciation.
A rock, a river, a tree.
On a chilly January day in 1993, Maya Angelou captured national attention and, in her own special way, the spirit of the moment for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. The poem she read, "On the Pulse of the Morning," became a national bestseller.
But, today, the rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, come, you may stand upon my back and face your distant destiny, but seek no haven in my shadow. I will give you no more hiding place down here.
Long before that moment, Maya Angelou had become one of the most respected authors and cultural figures of her generation, making a remarkable journey from rough beginnings.
She was born Marguerite Johnson and spent much of her childhood in racially segregated Arkansas. After her mother's boyfriend raped her at the age of 7, she retreated into silence for years. In 2012, at the New York Public Library, she remembered how books came into her life in those troubled times.
I had been abused, and I returned to a little village in Arkansas. And a black lady took me to — she knew I wasn't speaking. I refused to speak. For six years, I was a volunteer mute.
She took me to the library in the black school. The library probably had about 300 books, maybe. She said, "I want you to read every book in this library." It seemed to me thousands of books.
Angelou became a single mother at 17, worked a variety of jobs, including at a strip club, and even ran a brothel. Eventually, taking on a new name, she became a singer and dancer.
In 1969, at the urging of James Baldwin, she chronicled that early life in the first of what would become a series of memoirs, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." It won critical praise and made her one of the first African-American women to author a bestseller.
Angelou used her new voice to explore the effects of racism and sexism on personal identity. One such work was her 1978 poem, "And Still I Rise."
Out of the huts of history's shame, I rise. Up from a past rooted in pain, I rise. A black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling, I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise. Into a daybreak miraculously clear, I rise, bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave. I am the dream and the hope of the slave, and so, naturally, there I go rising.
Angelou never went to college, but ultimately received more than 30 honorary degrees. She also became a prominent civil rights activist, Tony-nominated stage actress, college professor and frequent guest on television shows.
Along the way, her life intersected, in work and friendship, with a number of other well-known figures, from Malcolm X to Oprah Winfrey. In 2012, she spoke in a profile by PBS affiliate KQED from her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Friendship, it keeps you alive, it keeps you awake, it keeps you trying to be the best. And in the middle of the night, when you're lonely and most — and feel most — most at odds with yourself and with life and even with God, you can call a friend.
In 2011, President Obama presented Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.
Today, the president called her a — quote — "brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman."
Maya Angelou died this morning at her Winston-Salem home. She was 86 years old.
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