Maya Angelou, American Poet, Activist, and Tony Nominee, Has Died at 86

The author of ”I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” had a prosperous career in theater.

Maya Angelou, the Tony-nominated poet and civil rights activist, has died at 86.
Maya Angelou, a Tony nominee, poet, and civil rights activist, has died at 86.

Maya Angelou, an American poet laureate and civil rights activist who also had a prosperous career as an actress, playwright, and singer (among other things), has died at the age of 86.

Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou grew up in that city and the segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. She studied dance and drama in San Francisco, dropping out of school at 14 and later becoming the city's first African-American female cable car conductor. She toured Europe in the 1950s in George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward's Porgy and Bess, and recorded her first album, Calypso Lady, in 1957.

In 1961, Angelou starred as Queen in Jean Genet's The Blacks at St. Mark's Playhouse. It was one of two New York stage appearances she made; the other, a Tony-nominated performance as dress-maker Elizabeth Keckley in Jerome Kilty's Mary Todd Lincoln bio-play, Look Away, ran for one night in 1973 at Broadway's now defunct Playhouse Theatre. She received an Emmy nomination for her performance in the landmark television miniseries Roots, and also authored the plays The Least of These, Gettin' Up Stayed on My Mind, and Cabaret for Freedom, among others.

Angelou never went to college, though over the course of her life, she received more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is perhaps most famous for her poetry, including "On the Pulse of Morning," which she read at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, and her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She received an honorary National Book Award in 2013, as well as the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Her son, the writer Guy Johnson, is her only immediate survivor.