Author, poet, civil rights activist Maya Angelou dead at 86

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(May 28, 2014) – Renowned author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86.

Angelou was due to receive the “Beacon of Life Award” at the 2014 MLB Beacon Award Luncheon on May 30 in Houston. The MLB announced that she had canceled her appearance, citing health reasons. She died in her home in Winston-Salem, according to My Fox 8. Her agent confirmed the news, CNN reported.

Angelou had been battling ill health in recent years. She was set to present a lecture at Butler University last year but canceled her appearance because of snow. She later rescheduled but had to bow out because of an illness. She eventually made it to Butler in September 2013. The lecture marked 25 years since she’d inaugurated Butler’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Angelou has received numerous honorary degrees in a career that’s spanned novels, poems, film, TV and the civil rights movement. Her important literary works include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and On The Pulse of Morning.

She spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco, but dropped out at age 14, instead becoming the city’s first African-American female cable car conductor.

Angelou later returned to high school to finish her diploma and gave birth a few weeks after graduation. While the 17-year-old single mother waited tables to support her son, she acquired a passion for music and dance, and toured Europe in the mid-1950s in the opera production “Porgy and Bess.” In 1957, she recorded her first album, “Calypso Lady.”

In 1958, Angelou become a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and also played a queen in “The Blacks,” an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet.

Affectionately referred to as Dr. Angelou, the professor never went to college. She has more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

“I created myself,” she has said. “I have taught myself so much.”

Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially-segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.

The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy that stunned her into silence for years. When she was 7, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He was later beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him.

“My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she said.

From the silence, a louder voice was born.

Her list of friends is as impressive as her illustrious career. Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey referred to her as “sister friend.” She counted Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she worked during the Civil Rights movement, among her friends. King was assassinated on her birthday.

Angelou spoke at least six languages, and worked at one time as a newspaper editor in Egypt and Ghana. During that period, she wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, launching the first in a series of autobiographical books.

“I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine … before she realizes she’s reading,” Angelou said.

She was also one of the first black women film directors. Her work on Broadway has been nominated for Tony Awards.

Before making it big, the 6-foot-tall wordsmith also worked as a cook and sang with a traveling road show. “Look where we’ve all come from … coming out of darkness, moving toward the light,” she once said. “It is a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.”

CNN contributed to this report

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