Maya Angelou, Poet and Memoirist, Dead at 86

Maya Angelou, the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, many other books of poetry and memoir, and a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, has reportedly died in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86.

Among her many, many talents, Dr. Angelou had a great singing voice, much in evidence during her appearance in the 1957 film Calypso Heatwave:

Born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928, she arrived at poetry and autobiography after surviving childhood sexual abuse, a period of mutism following the murder of her abuser, and a hardscrabble period of single motherhood.

She eventually moved into singing and dancing, performing in a touring company of Porgy and Bess as well as Calypso Heatwave.

She turned her attention seriously to writing and civil rights work in the 1960s. She was close with Martin Luther King, Jr, and was devastated when he was assassinated on her 40th birthday. She knew Malcolm X well, too. She narrated documentaries about the blues and wrote poetry. And when she published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, with the encouragement of her friend James Baldwin, it made her into the public figure we know now, the one who, as Hilton Als once put it, cut a public persona of "fiery, lyrical dignity."

She met Oprah Winfrey in the 1970s, just as Winfrey was coming up as a young television anchor. In recent years, they've become something of a duo in the public imagination. Winfrey often refers to Angelou as her mentor, or "mother-sister-friend." In a 2000 interview published in O magazine the two women talked about Winfrey's favorite lessons:

Oprah: You've shown that you can live on—and with grace. That's the other quality that you and I appreciate in people: the ability to live with, and accept, grace. Because grace seems to always be available.

Maya: It's like a lake of drinkable water right outside your door. But you stay inside and die of thirst.

Oprah: My favorite Maya teaching is, "When people show you who they are, believe them."

Maya: Yes—and believe them the first time!

A lot of people certainly believed in Maya Angelou.

[Image via Getty.]