“I am gay,” Maya Angelou told a gathering of an estimated 4,000 predominantly LGBT people celebrating gay and lesbian choruses at the GALA Festival in Tampa, Fla., in 1996. She then paused and continued: “I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.” She believed in the shared humanity of all people—regardless of race, gender, or religion—and was inviting everyone to embrace our shared humanity.
Maya Angelou—the iconic poet, author, playwright, professor, and tireless civil rights advocate—died May 28 in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86 years old and will be sorely missed.
The legendary woman had been suffering several ailments, including a heart condition, her longtime literary agent said. A cause of death was not immediately announced.
The prolific author of the landmark six-volume memoir that begins with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was a lifelong advocate for civil rights, and counted Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among her many friends and allies in the fight toward racial equity worldwide.
Her unyielding advocacy for civil rights, and her volleys in the fight against sexism, racism, and classism were always delivered in her characteristically powerful, unapologetic voice — whether spoken or written — and earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. President Barack Obama presented Angelou with the highest civilian honor in the nation in February 2011. Seven years prior, Angelou served as the Inaugural Poet, reading "On the Pulse of the Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in January 1993.
Angelou, who was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis on April 4, 1928, led a vibrant, varied life, working as a dancer, a calypso singer, the first African-American female cable car conductor in San Francisco, and a Tony-nominated stage actress and playwright, all before her 40th birthday. She spoke seven languages, worked as a magazine editor in Cairo, as an administrative assistant in Ghana, and was a frequent guest on nationally broadcast programs from the Oprah Winfrey Show to Sesame Street, according to the New York Times.
At the same time, Angelou made no secret of the considerable hardship she had endured, growing up as a poor black woman in the Jim Crow South, as a single mother in her teens, and as a survivor of sexual assault when she was just seven years old.
Although she did not complete college, she was a highly revered professor, earning more than 30 honorary degrees and spending nearly a decade teaching American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, CNN reports. She received numerous awards throughout her illustrious career, including nominations for a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, in addition to a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album in 2002, the Lincoln Medal, and Norman Mailer Prize.
While Angelou was best known for her powerful advocacy in the Civil Rights Movement, she was also a staunch advocate for women, education, and, in her later years, for the equality of LGBT people. In 2009, Angelou spoke with the New York Times and explained her support for marriage equality. "To love someone takes a lot of courage," she explained, "so how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person?'"
Watch her read "On the Pulse of Morning" at Clinton's inauguration (courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library):