Poet, performer and political activist Maya Angelou has died after a long illness at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was 86. Born in St. Louis in 1928, Angelou grew up in a segregated society that she worked to change during the civil rights era. Angelou, who refused to speak for much of her childhood, revealed the scars of her past in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of a series of memoirs.
Growing up in St. Louis, Mo., and Stamps, Ark., she was Marguerite Johnson. It was her brother who first called her Maya, and the name stuck. Later she added the Angelou, a version of her first husband's name.
Angelou left a troubled childhood and the segregated world of Arkansas behind and began a career as a dancer and singer. She toured Europe in the1950s with a production of Porgy and Bess, studied dance with Martha Graham and performed with Alvin Ailey on television. In 1957 she recorded an album called "Calypso Lady."
"I was known as Miss Calypso, and when I'd forget the lyric, I would tell the audience, 'I seem to have forgotten the lyric. Now I will dance.' And I would move around a bit," she recalled with a laugh during a 2008 interview with NPR.
"She really believed that life was a banquet," says Patrik Henry Bass, an editor at Essence Magazine. When he read Angelou's memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, he saw parallels in his own life in a small town in North Carolina. He says everyone in the African-American community looked up to her; she was a celebrity but she was one of them. He remembers seeing her on television and hearing her speak.