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Maya Angelou was a 'real original'

BBC News BBC News 29/05/2014 BBC News

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou
© Getty Images

Author Toni Morrison has paid tribute to her friend, the poet, author and activist Maya Angelou, saying she was a "real original" with "no duplicate".

"She launched African-American women writing in the United States," Morrison told the BBC at the Hay Festival. "She was generous to a fault."

Angelou died on Wednesday, aged 86.

She made her name with the memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which charted her childhood of oppression and abuse in the Deep South in the 1930s.

Angelou's family described her as "a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace".

In a statement on Facebook, they said she passed away quietly at home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, adding they were "extremely grateful that her ascension was not belaboured by a loss of acuity or comprehension."

"She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being... The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love."

'Greatest storyteller'

US President Barack Obama called her "one of the brightest lights of our time... A brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman".

He presented Angelou with the country's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

"Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things - an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer.LinkLink

"But above all, she was a storyteller - and her greatest stories were true," he said.

"A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking - but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves."

Raised by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend at the age of seven. After she told her family what had happened, the boyfriend was killed.

"I thought my voice had killed him, so it was better not to speak - so I simply stopped speaking," she said. She remained mute for five years, but read voraciously.

Former President Bill Clinton, who invited Angelou to read at his 1993 inauguration, said America had lost a national treasure and he and wife Hillary had lost "a beloved friend".

"The poems and stories she wrote and read to us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace," he said.

Others paying tribute included civil rights campaigner Reverend Jesse Jackson, who wrote on Twitter: "The renaissance woman has made a peaceful transition. She acted, sang, danced and taught. She used poetry as a road for peace."

Oprah Winfrey wrote on her website: "I've been blessed to have Maya Angelou as my mentor, mother/sister and friend since my 20s."

"What stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken; it's how she lived her life.

"She moved through the world with unshakable calm, confidence and a fierce grace... She will always be the rainbow in my clouds."

The Colour Purple author Alice Walker wrote a tribute in The Guardian, saying Angelou had "inspired, and actually helped, the lives of millions".

Walker said: "I envision Maya as a kind of General of Compassion, offering an army of words of encouragement.

"She was special, she was rare, she was more beautiful than perhaps even she realised, because she was, among other things, such an artist, that she could not only create worlds on paper, or in a listener's imagination, but she also managed, over and over again in her long life, to create and recreate herself."

Many honoured Angelou by posting her most famous quotes on Twitter, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling who wrote: "'If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.' Maya Angelou - who was utterly amazing."

Beyonce paid tribute on her Instagram feed, posting two pictures of the handwritten verses to Angelou's poem Still I Rise.

A statement from Wake Forest University, where Angelou had been professor of American studies since 1982, said: "Dr Angelou was a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world."

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which dealt with the racism and family trauma of her upbringing, spent two years on the US best-seller list after its publication in 1970. It was the first of seven memoirs.

After the poverty, violence and segregation of her childhood, she became a singer, a dancer, cocktail waitress, prostitute and an actress before beginning her writing career.

Angelou was also a prominent civil rights activist and a friend to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Through her writing and interviews, her strength and eloquence as a role model for those seeking to overcome inequality and injustice won her many admirers.

Her career had many outlets, straddling television, theatre, film, children's books and music. She even appeared on Sesame Street several times throughout her life.

In her final Facebook post on Monday, she said an "unexpected medical emergency" had forced her to cancel an engagement.

A selection of tributes from Twitter:

President Obama and Maya Angelou: Barack Obama gave Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011

Barack Obama gave Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011
© AP

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