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Maya Angelou Dies at 86

Photograph by AP

Maya Angelou, the African-American poet and memoirist who grew up and wrote about her life in the South, died today at 86. She passed away at home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

While the cause of death is still undetermined, the New York Times reports that Angelou had been in failing health and suffered from heart problems.

Born in St. Louis on April 4, 1928, Angelou became famous for her memoirs, the first of which, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," was published when she was in her early 40s. The six-volume autobiography recounted her life growing up and chronicled her various jobs, as a dancer, streetcar conductor and magazine editor, among others. She was also a single mother.

Racial tension also played a significant role in her work.

"If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat," she writes in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

In January 1993, she delivered the inaugural poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the swearing-in of President Bill Clinton, himself someone who grew up poor in the rural South.

After her parents' divorce when she was 3 years old, she and her older brother were sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother, who plays a large role in her writing. She occasionally returned to visit her mother in St. Louis, and on one occasion was raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was 7 or 8 years old, according to the Times.

Moving with her mother to San Francisco as a teen, she studied dance and drama and became the city's first black female streetcar conductor. At 16, she became pregnant and later gave birth to a boy.

Her memoirs recount her struggles to care for her son, including the various jobs she took to support him. Those ranged from a dancer, fry cook and an employee in a mechanic's shop.

In 2011, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor an American civilian can receive.

Angelou is survived by her son, Guy Johnson, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

One of the writer's more famous poems, "Still I Rise" (1928), seems to capture her struggles as well as her grit and ultimate triumph.

It begins:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I'll rise.

Our favorite quotes from Maya Angelou.

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