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Maya Angelou dies at age 86: See poet talk life lessons, 'greatest gift' on TODAY

May 28, 2014 at 9:35 AM ET

Image: Dr Maya Angelou
Graham Jepson
The American author, poet and activist first touched readers with her coming-of-age autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

Legendary American poet and author Maya Angelou, whose autobiographical works often centered on racism and civil rights, has died at age 86. 

The renowned writer became a literary sensation with her first book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a coming-of-age autobiography that recounted her turbulent childhood and early adult years, including her experience of becoming a teenage mother.

Her son, Guy B. Johnson, released a statement Wednesday:

"Dr. Maya Angelou passed quietly in her home before 8 a.m. EST. Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. 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." 

When Angelou appeared on TODAY, she shared many details of her life, from the favorite foods of her childhood to her relationship with her grandmother.

Watch Maya Angelou on TODAY in 2004: Maya Angelou's soul food

Watch Maya Angelou on TODAY in 2008: Maya Angelou shares life lessons

Watch Maya Angelou on TODAY in 2005: Maya Angelou recites her Christmas poem

Watch Maya Angelou on TODAY in 2013: 'My son is my greatest gift'

President Obama, who awarded Angelou with a Medal of Freedom in 2011, issued a statement praising her contributions. 

“Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman,” Obama said.

The president said he and the first lady "will always cherish the time we were privileged to spend" with Angelou.

“While Maya’s day may be done, we take comfort in knowing that her song will continue, ‘flung up to heaven’ — and we celebrate the dawn that Maya Angelou helped bring," he said.

Others also expressed condolences to Angelou's family as word of the death of one of the nation's most prolific and inspirational writers spread Wednesday.  

"Dr. Angelou was a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world, including countless students, faculty, and staff at Wake Forest, where she served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies since 1982," the university said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Angelou's family and friends during this difficult time." 

Angelou said that becoming a single mom at age 17 helped provide her with much-needed wisdom, patience and prospective over a life that saw her become a dancer, actress and director in addition to writer. “The greatest gift I’ve ever been given was my son,” she said.

Angelou inspired the world with famous quotes that many found uplifting and empowering: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel," she once said.

On Twitter over four years, she shared many gems of poetry and prose that made their way around the social media network Wednesday. 

In 1993, Angelou wrote the poem for President Clinton’s inauguration, becoming the first poet at such a ceremony since Robert Frost at President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. The attention Angelou received from her piece, “On the Pulse of Morning,” renewed widespread interest in her library of work and earned her a Grammy award for a recording of it.

Marguerite Annie Johnson was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Mo. She was only 3 when her divorcing parents sent her and her brother to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, something that made her initially resent her mother.

“I didn't really like her very much. I wouldn’t call her mother,” she told TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager in an interview last year, on the writer's 85th birthday. “I called her ‘Lady,’ and she asked me why. I said, ‘Because you don't look like a mother, and you're very pretty and you act like a lady. So she said, ‘All right,’ and she took that. And I liked her for that.”


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