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Maya Angelou Dead at 86

Award-winning poet, essayist and author of 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' passes away in North Carolina home

May 28, 2014 10:05 AM ET
Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Poet, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86. The cause of death has not yet been revealed.

In Memoriam: look back at the artists we lost in 2013

Angelou had recently canceled an appearance at the 2014 Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon where she was to be honored earlier this week, Huffington Post reported, citing "health reasons." And in April, an "unexpected ailment" kept her from another event. According to CNN, she died in her Winston-Salem, North Carolina home.

She was best known for her 1969 book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a literary autobiography chronicling her childhood in the South and overcoming the inherent racism that came with it in cutting detail. It was one of the first autobiographies by an African-American woman in the 20th century to reach a widespread audience, according to The New York Times. Following the release of the book, she went on to write five more memoirs.

Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928 and, despite dropping out of high school at age 14, went on to excel in several fields. After moving to San Francisco, she eventually got her high school diploma and became the city's first African-American female cable-car operator. She gave birth to a son at 17, but still went on to tour Europe with the cast of Porgy and Bess and issue her debut album, Calypso Lady, in the Fifties. Later, she would direct Tony-nominated Broadway plays and acclaimed films.

"I created myself," she said, according to CNN. "I have taught myself so much."

She did so after overcoming great odds. At age 7, her mother's boyfriend sexually assaulted her. After she testified against him, a mob beat him to death. She said she refused to speak for nearly six years after that.

As an adult, she befriended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom she worked during the civil ights movement, and later became close to Oprah Winfrey. In January 1993, she read the poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the swearing-in for President Bill Clinton.

In her lifetime, Angelou would receive a number of awards and recognitions. In 1972, she was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry book, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie. She received the Langston Hughes Medal for honoring her African-American cultural heritage in writing in 1991. She won three Grammy Awards in the Nineties and 2000s for recordings of her poetry and her autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven. She was given the NAACP Image Award in 1997 in recognition of her many accomplishments. She also earned honorary degrees from several colleges and universities.

In music, Angelou has inspired artists ranging from Fiona Apple to Kayne West to Steven Tyler. She tendered words to Ben Harper, and she read a poem called "We Had Him" at Michael Jackson's memorial.

Angelou's publicist, Helen Brann, told ABC News that she had been finishing a new book at the time of her death, though she had been very frail and experiencing heart problems. Brann said she spoke to Angelou the day before her death and that "her spirit was indomitable."

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