This morning, celebrated poet, author, and activist Maya Angelou died at the age of 86 in her home in North Carolina. Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis in 1928 and wrote throughout her life about the struggles she experienced as a child of segregation. She had a long, storied career, working as a singer, dancer, director, civil rights activist, playwright, and poet, but she was best known for her seven-volume autobiography. Her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, gripped the American public upon its release in 1969 for its eloquent and devastating recounting of her sexual abuse.
Angelou played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement by raising awareness through her literature, and she has been honored more than 50 times for her contributions. In honor of her illustrious life, here are 15 things you didn’t know about Maya Angelou (but should).
1. She was the first African American female poet laureate.
2. Her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, transformed the American literary canon.
3. She was a sexual abuse survivor.
4. President Clinton requested she read an original poem at his inauguration, making her the first black woman poet to read at an inauguration.
5. At the age of 16, she became the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
6. She often did her writing in hotel rooms stocked only with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.
7. She was once a madam for lesbian prostitutes.
8. She served on the Ford and Carter presidential committees and recieved Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
9. She was a coordinator for Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
10. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
11. She once made Tupac cry.
12. She recorded an album called Miss Calpyso in 1957.
13. She directed the feature film Down in the Delta (1998).
14. Her older brother nicknamed her Maya, derived from "My" or "Mya Sister."
15. She credits finding the Unity Church in her 20s with changing her life.