Legendary author, poet, civil rights activist and one-time Harlem resident Maya Angelou died Wednesday in North Carolina at the age of 86. NY1's Cheryl Wills filed the following report.
The nation rejoiced when Maya Angelou delivered her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. It was one of many highlights for the renaissance woman who stood tall, spoke passionately and loved deeply.
Tony Award-winning choreographer George Faison was a dear friend who Angelou often said was like a son to her.
"I'm so glad that I was able to sit so many times at her feet and listen and learn from that wisdom," Faison said.
She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis in 1928 under brutal Jim Crow laws. Her upbringing sparked an unwavering commitment to civil rights. She befriended civil rights leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and she wrote passionately about equal rights for blacks and women.
As an author and poet, she published dozens of works spanning more than a half-century, most notably her signature 1969 work, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."
"Just imagine that in school, when people would get books, black women would never see themselves, and so along comes 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' probably one of the most read and influential books of the 20th century," said Patrik Henry Bass of Essence Magazine.
Angelou was among a fiery wave of African-American women writers in the 1960s who gave voice to their traumatic experiences.
She was raped at the age of 8 by her mother's boyfriend and refused to speak for years after. Though ridiculed by many in her family, she told NY1 in an exclusive 2010 interview that it was her grandmother who always defended her honor.
"I was loved by my grandmother, who told me when I was a mute - I wouldn't speak to anybody but my brother for six years - my grandmother told me, 'Sister, momma don't care what these people say about, "You must be an idiot. You must be a moron cause you can’t talk." Sister, momma don't care,'" recalled Angelou. "'Momma know that when you and the Lord get ready, you gonna be a teacher.'"
A teacher she was. When she passed away in her sleep in her home in North Carolina, Angelou was a professor at Wake Forest University and lectured all over the world. In her earlier years, she was a dancer and an actor who loved the camera, even with the Muppets.
Former President Bill Clinton said, "America has lost a national treasure" and President Barack Obama called Angelou "a brilliant writer and a fierce friend." The president honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Louise Meriwether, a fellow writer who befriended Angelou nearly 50 years ago, said despite failing health, Angelou was determined to give it her all until the end.
"I had told her a little while ago, I said, 'Maya, you know one thing. You gonna die with your boots on,' and she said, 'Yeah, because I never take them off,'" Meriwether said.
To echo one of her most popular poems, She was a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal Woman. That was her.
Maya Angelou was 86.
Statement by President Obama on Passing of Maya Angelou
When her friend Nelson Mandela passed away last year, Maya Angelou wrote that “No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again, and bring the dawn.”
Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time – a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman. Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things – an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer. But above all, she was a storyteller – and her greatest stories were true. A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking – but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves. In fact, she inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.
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. 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.