Poet and civil rights campaigner Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86. Her death was confirmed Wednesday by Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she had served as a professor of American studies since 1982.
Tall and regal, with a deep and majestic voice, Angelou defied all probability and category, becoming one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success as an author and thriving in virtually every artistic medium. The young single mother who performed at strip clubs to earn a living later wrote and recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history. The childhood victim of rape wrote a million-selling memoir, befriended Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and performed on stages around the world.
An actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s, she broke through as an author in 1970 with her memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." It became standard (and occasionally censored) reading in schools, and was the first of a multipart autobiography that continued through the decades.
President Barack Obama offered his condolences following news of Angelou's death.
"Like so many others, Michelle and I will always cherish the time we were privileged to spend with Maya. With a kind word and a strong embrace, she had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer," Obama said.
"And while Maya’s day may be done, we take comfort in knowing that her song will continue, 'flung up to heaven' – and we celebrate the dawn that Maya Angelou helped bring."
In 1993 Angelou was a sensation reading her cautiously hopeful "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's first inauguration. Her confident performance openly delighted Clinton and made the poem a best-seller, if not a critical favorite. For President George W. Bush, she read another poem, "Amazing Peace," at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House.
Angelou rose from poverty, segregation and violence to become a force on stage, screen and the printed page. In 1998, she directed the film "Down in the Delta," about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in Mississippi.
She remained close enough to the Clintons that in 2008 she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy over the ultimately successful run of the country's first black president, Barack Obama. But a few days before Obama's inauguration, she was clearly overjoyed. She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she would be watching it on television "somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know."
She was a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, whom she befriended when Winfrey was still a local television reporter, and Angelou often appeared on her friend's talk show. She mastered several languages and published not just poetry but advice books, cookbooks and children's stories. She wrote music, plays and screenplays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in "Roots," and never lost her passion for dance, the art she considered closest to poetry.
Her very name as an adult was a reinvention. Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother. She was smart and bold to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn't speak at all: At age 7, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend and didn't speak for years. She learned by reading and listening.
"I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: 'Go down Moses, way down in Egypt's land,'" she told The Associated Press. "It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And 'Deep River.' Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about 7 and a half, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library ... And I read every book, even if I didn't understand it."
Photos: A look at Angelou's life
At age 9, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s she danced at a strip club, ran a brothel, was married (to Enistasious Tosh Angelos, her first of three husbands) and then divorced.
By her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou's son Guy, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: "You're going to be famous. But it won't be for singing."
After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage ("Maya" was a childhood nickname), she toured in "Porgy and Bess" and Jean Genet's "The Blacks," and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organize the Poor People's March in Memphis, Tennessee, where the civil rights leader was slain on April 4, 1968, Angelou's 40th birthday.
"Every year on that day, Coretta and I would send each other flowers," Angelou said of King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.
Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until the publication of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" — which might not have happened if James Baldwin had not persuaded Angelou, still grieving over King's death, to attend a party at the house of cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer. Feiffer was so taken by Angelou that he mentioned her to Random House editor Bob Loomis, who persuaded her to write a book.
Her memoir was occasionally attacked, for seemingly opposing reasons. In a 1999 essay in Harper's, author Francine Prose criticized "Caged Bird" as a "manipulative" melodrama. Meanwhile, Angelou's passages about her rape and teen pregnancy have made it a perennial on the American Library Association's list of works that draw complaints from parents and educators.
Angelou appeared on several TV programs, notably the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries "Roots." She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her appearance in the play "Look Away." She directed "Down in the Delta," won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community.
In the 1960s, Malcolm X had written to Angelou and praised her for her ability to communicate so directly, with her "feet firmly rooted on the ground.”
In North Carolina, she lived in an 18-room house. Aside from teaching at Wake Forest, she was also a member of the board of trustees of Bennett College, a private school for black women in Greensboro, N.C. Angelou hosted a weekly satellite radio show for XM's Oprah & Friends channel. She also owned and renovated a townhouse in Harlem.
Active on the lecture circuit, she gave commencement speeches and addressed academic and corporate events across the country. She received dozens of honorary degrees, and several elementary schools were named for her. As she approached her 80th birthday, she decided to study at the Missouri-based Unity Church, which advocates healing through prayer.
Al Jazeera & wire services