By Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott
WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) – American author and poet Maya Angelou, an eloquent commentator on race and gender best known for her groundbreaking autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” has died at age 86 in North Carolina.
The prolific African-American writer died quietly at her home in Winston-Salem, Angelou’s family said in a statement on Wednesday.
“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,” her family said.
Angelou penned more than 30 books, won numerous awards, and was honored last year by the National Book Awards for her service to the literary community. Her latest work “Mom & Me & Mom,” about her mother and grandmother and what they taught her, was released last year.
Angelou posted her last tweet on May 23:
Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.
— Maya Angelou (@DrMayaAngelou) May 23, 2014
Literary and entertainment figures, politicians and fans mourned her passing on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama called her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.”
“With a kind word and a strong embrace, she had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer,” Obama said in a statement from the White House.
Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres said in a tweet, “Today the world lost one of its greatest gifts.” Singer Dionne Warwick said in a statement she had been “enriched” by Angelou and her knowledge of living life to its fullest.
“She will be greatly missed, but with gratitude, her legacy of wisdom will be with me throughout my lifetime,” Warwick said.
In addition to her many books, Angelou also directed, wrote and acted in movies, plays and television programs and was a singer, songwriter, educator and popular lecturer. She was a Grammy winner for three spoken-word albums.
Active in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, Angelou worked with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. For years she did not celebrate her birthday because it coincided with the anniversary of King’s assassination.
“We share the gratitude of so many for Dr. Angelou’s contributions to literature, human rights, and social justice. Her legacy is one that all writers and readers across the world can admire and aspire to,” said Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation.
Wake Forest University, where Angelou was a professor of American studies since 1982, said its thoughts and prayers were with her family and friends and that a campus memorial service would be announced at a later date.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a coming-of-age story in a hostile society in the American South in the 1930s and ’40s that deals with racism and rape, is considered an American classic.
Angelou, who was 6 feet tall and possessed a regal speaking voice, was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. She spent part of her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas with her grandmother after her parents divorced.
At age 7, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was later beaten to death in an assault that some believed was carried out by Angelou’s uncles. The trauma of the rape and her assailant’s death left Angelou mute for six years.
Her devoted readers found plenty of inspiration in the works of Angelou, who once summed up her approach to life by saying: “Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told, ‘I’m with you, kid. Let’s go.’”
(Additional reporting by Patricia Reaney in New York; Editing by Paul Simao)