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

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    Graham Jepson

    Image: Dr Maya Angelou

    Maya Angelou: 1928-2014

    The American author, poet and activist first touched readers with her coming-of-age autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

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    American legend -

    Maya Angelou, born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis as Marguerite Annie Johnson, was an author, poet and political activist. She died on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, N.C., at age 86.
    Angelou poses for a photo in London on Sept. 20, 2005.

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    First step -

    Angelou began her career as a dancer and writer. She poses in this 1957 photo at the Caribbean Calypso Festival.

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    Literary sensation -

    Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was her first book, a coming-of-age autobiography that recounted her childhood and early adult years, including her experience of becoming a teenage mother.

    AP
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    TV history -

    Angelou stars with Cicely Tyson in the 1977 television mini-series "Roots." She played Kunta Kinte's grandmother.

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    Inaugural fame -

    Newly sworn-in President Bill Clinton reaches out to hug Angelou after she delivered her inaugural poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," on the west steps of the Capitol during inauguration ceremonies in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1993.

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    Educating in the neighborhood -

    Angelou makes a 1995 guest appearance on Sesame Street in a skit called, 'A New Way to Walk.'

    Sesame Workshop
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    Civil rights icons -

    Angelou and Coretta Scott King, left, widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., speak to the media after visiting Betty Shabazz, the widow of slain civil rights activist Malcom X, at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., on June 2, 1997.

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    Poetry in motion -

    Angelou speaks to a crowd at the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on the University of Northern Iowa campus on Sept. 11, 2000, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Angelou, who spoke on the healing and saving nature of poetry, encouraged the crowd to become the composers of their own lives.

    Dan Nierling / Cedar Falls Courier via AP
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    National treasure -

    President Clinton congratulates Angelou after presenting her with the National Medal of Arts during ceremonies at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 20, 2000.

    Stephen Jaffe / AFP - Getty Images
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    Talking the talk -

    Angelou talks with reporters before giving a reading at the Abyssinian Development Corporation's 10th Annual Renaissance Day of Commitment Leadership Breakfast in Harlem, N.Y., on June 15, 2004.

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    Rallying the delegates -

    Angelou speaks before delegates during the second night of the 2004 Democratic National Convention at the Fleet Center in Boston on July 27, 2004.

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    Farewell to a friend -

    Angelou speaks during the funeral services for Coretta Scott King at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., on Feb. 7, 2006. King, the wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., died Jan. 30, 2006, at the age of 78. Seated behind Angelou is President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

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    Making 'Madea' -

    Angelou, left, director Tyler Perry and actress Cicely Tyson are seen on the set of "Madea's Family Reunion" in 2006.

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    Helping another Clinton -

    Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton holds the hand of Angelou during a conversation in front of an audience at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., during a campaign stop on April 18, 2008.

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    A voice for the Voice -

    Angelou attends the memorial celebration for Odetta Holmes, an American singer, actress and activist, at Riverside Church in New York City on on Feb. 24, 2009. Holmes, called the "Voice of the Civil Rights Movement" died at age 77.

    Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images
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    Birthday wishes -

    Angelou shares a moment with Naomi Judd during a celebration of Angelou's 82nd birthday with friends and family at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., on May 20, 2010.

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    More presidential praise -

    President Barack Obama kisses Angelou after presenting her with the 2010 Medal of Freedom at the White House on Feb. 15, 2011.

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    Friend, mentor -

    Oprah Winfrey, right, laughs with Angelou during the taping of "Oprah's Surprise Spectacular" in Chicago on May 17, 2011. Angelou found something of a spiritual soul mate in Oprah, who she met in the 1970s when the future talk show queen was still a TV anchor.

    John Gress / Reuters
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    Portrait of an artist -

    Angelou talks with Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, at Angelou's portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on April 5, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

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    Honoring the activists -

    Angelou speaks during a ceremony to honor South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding Award in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 21, 2008.

    Jim Young / Reuters

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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