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Maya Angelou Has Died At 86

Illustration for article titled Maya Angelou Has Died At 86

Maya Angelou, the legendary, brilliant, and matchless American author, civil rights activist, director, educator, speaker, performer, and poet whose career has spanned five decades, has passed away at age 86.

According to the local Winston-Salem Fox affiliate (and confirmed by CBS News), Angelou was found unresponsive by her caretaker on Wednesday morning. Her death was confirmed by her literary agent.

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As outlined in her 1969 autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou grew up in both Missouri and Arkansas. After she was raped by her mother's boyfriend as a child, Angelou did not speak for five years because she felt responsible for his subsequent murder. "I still don't find it cathartic," Angelou said in 2005 of writing so personally about her life. "If it was really cathartic, it would wipe it out. Alas, that is not so."

Dr. Angelou was a dancer, singer and actor before moving to New York City where she began to write and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She forged relationships with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. She would eventually write scripts for television, plays and movies. She was a true renaissance woman (Angelou didn't write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings until she was 40).

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"Angelou often gets treated as public property," Gary Younge wrote in the Guardian in 2002. "People think they know her. Not surprising, given that she has told them so much about herself. For, probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou's life literally is her work."

A close friend and mentor of Oprah Winfrey's, Angelou and her words have often been featured by Oprah. "I don't know when I know enough," she told Oprah recently about her constant gathering of information.

Here she is reciting her poem "And I Still Rise":

In 1993, Angelou read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Clinton's Inauguration. She's spent the most recent years of her life lecturing and has held the position of Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982.

The obituaries in The Washington Post and The New York Times are beautiful. Also check out the #MayaTaughtMe hashtag on twitter.

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"A Brave and Startling Truth"

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when

We come to it.