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Poet Maya Angelou (86) passes away

The author has been described by her family as a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.

US poet Maya Angelou reads a poem during a ceremony to present Archbishop Desmond Tutu the William J. Fulbright Prize for International Understanding, 21 November 2008. Picture: AFP.

JOHANNESBURG - World-renowned American author and poet Dr Maya Angelou has died aged 86, her publicist confirmed on Wednesday.

Her body was discovered at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

A statement released on behalf of her family a short while ago said she passed away quietly before 8am local time (2pm South African time).

"Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belaboured by a loss of acuity or comprehension," says her son, Guy B. Johnson.

"She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love."

The cause of her death has not yet been revealed but it's been widely reported that she recently cancelled several appearances due to poor health.

The author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was born on 4 April 1928, in St Louis, Missouri.

She moved from St Louis to Stamps, Arkansas, at a young age and in both areas she experienced racial discrimination.

When Angelou was just eight-years-old, her mother's boyfriend raped her. He was arrested but released soon after, later being found beaten to death.

Angelou believed she caused the killing by speaking of the rape and refused to discuss the matter again for several years.

As a teenager, Angelou won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco's Labour School but dropped out at 14 to become a cable car conductor.

She later finished high school and gave birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation. She worked as a waitress and cook to support him as a young single mother but remained driven by her love of the arts.

She was first married to Enistasious Angelos from 1951 to 1954 and later Paul du Feu from 1973 to 1981.

Angelou was briefly married to South African civil rights activist and lawyer Vusumzi L. Make. They wed in 1960 and lived together in Cairo, Egypt, for three years, divorcing in 1963.

ACHIEVEMENTS

Angelou is perhaps best known for her memoirs, publishing seven autobiographies, along with several books of essays and poetry.

The memoirs focused on different periods in her life and were written in chronological order.

Angelou wrote about being made to feel ugly and inferior as a child and how her brother, Bailey, carried her through everything.

Describing her brother, she said, "Of all the needs (there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God. My little Black Brother Bailey was my Kingdom Come."

It's believed only he could get her to talk during her years of silence as a child.

She is also credited with an extensive list of plays, movies, television shows, and received dozens of awards and honorary doctoral degrees.

She was the first African American woman to be honoured with a Pulitzer Prize.

Other famous works by Angelou include, Still I Rise, Phenomenal Woman, Men and Ships? Sure I'll Sail Them.

She was also very active in the American civil rights movement, meeting Malcolm X in the 1960s and helping him build the Organisation of African American Unity.

Angelou also worked with Dr Martin Luther King Jr, reportedly being left devastated after his assassination on her birthday in 1968.

She also served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008.

President Clinton at the time requested she compose a poem to read at his inauguration in 1993, which was broadcast live around the world.

The major themes of her works were race, specifically racial relations in America, self-love, self-acceptance, the ties that bind families together and what it means to self-actualise.

In December last year, when former president Nelson Mandela died, Angelou recorded a touching tribute to him in the form of a poem:

Reacting to news of her death today, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory said the event marked a sad day for the world as a whole.

Angelou posted her last tweet on Friday last week.

Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.

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