Maya Angelou, celebrated poet and novelist, dies at 86

Inspirational leader known for equality, inclusion

Maya Angelou. Photo Credit: The Panamerican, via Flickr. Licensed CC.

Maya Angelou. Photo Credit: The Panamerican, via Flickr. Licensed CC.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — World-renowned poet, memoirist and progressive, inspirational leader Maya Angelou died at her home this morning. She was 86.

Angelou’s death was first confirmed this morning by local media in Winston-Salem, where Angelou lived and worked as a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. The Winston-Salem Journal reports that a hearse carrying Angelou’s body left her home near the university accompanied by a police escort.

Angelou had been a decades-long voice for change and progress. A civil rights icon, she inspired changed across the globe and worked with leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” launched her to international fame, telling her story of growing up in the segregated South. Angelou wrote five other autobiographical works and many poems, including “On the Pulse of the Morning,” for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.

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“Maya Angelou has been a towering figure — at Wake Forest and in American culture. She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation. We will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights,” Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch said, according to The Winston-Salem Journal.

The Winston-Salem newspaper also reports that a memorial will be planned at the university.

Angelou strove throughout her life-long career to make change, teach and inspire. On LGBT issues, she was a leader — coming out in support of LGBT equality, including marriage.

Her 1993 inaugural poem also included gay Americans, reading in part, “There is a true yearning to respond to/The singing River and the wise Rock./So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew/The African, the Native American, the Sioux,/The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek/The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,/The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,/The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher./They hear. They all hear/The speaking of the Tree.”

“I am gay,” she said at the 1996 GALA Festival in Tampa, Fla., and continuing, “I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.”

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“I’ll never forget the first time I heard ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ in 1993,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement on Wednesday. “I was only 19 years old and still very much in the closet, but Maya Angelou’s greatest gift was the ability to reach each and every person with her wisdom, the beauty of her language, and her simple insistence upon a better and more just world.”

Griffin continued, “Angelou has said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you. LGBT people know this truth well—and it is part of why so many in our community have looked to her as a hero for so long. For those of us whom Angelou inspired to tell our own stories and live our own truths, we will always miss her indispensable voice.”

In 1998, Angelou was cited as one of the reasons why the late Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church protested at Wake Forest University.

“We know she pushes that agenda strongly,” Phelps said at the time.

Angelou’s health had been declining. Recently, she decided not to attend the 2014 MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon in Houston this Friday.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.