UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970:  Photo of Maya Angelou  Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Legendary author Maya Angelou dies
03:50 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

Maya Angelou had an illustrious career as a poet, singer, dancer and director

She died at home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, her literary agent said

One of her most famous works was "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"

CNN  — 

A literary voice revered globally for her poetic command and her commitment to civil rights has fallen silent.

Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Wednesday, said her literary agent, Helen Brann. Angelou had been “frail” and suffering from heart problems, the agent said.

Angelou’s legacy is twofold. She leaves behind a body of important artistic work that influenced several generations. But the 86-year-old was praised by those who knew her as a good person, a woman who pushed for justice and education and equality.

In her full life, she wrote staggeringly beautiful poetry. She also wrote a cookbook and was nominated for a Tony. She delivered a poem at a presidential inauguration. In 2010, President Barack Obama named her a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

She was friends with Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and inspired young adults and world celebrities.

She sang calypso. She lived through horrors.

Her lasting contribution to literature, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” bore witness to the brutality of a Jim Crow South, portraying racism in stark language. Readers learned of the life of Marguerite Ann Johnson (Angelou’s birth name) up to the age of 16: how she was abandoned by her parents and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She was homeless and became a teen mother.

Its publication was both daring and historic, given the era of its debut in 1969.

“All of the writers of my generation must honor the ground broken by Dr. Maya Angelou,” author Tayari Jones posted on her Facebook page Wednesday.

“She told a story that wasn’t allowed to be told,” Jones said. “Now, people tell all sorts of things in memoir, but when she told the truth, she challenged a taboo – not for shock value, but to heal us all.”

Black American novelist Julian Mayfield is said to have described the autobiography as “a work of art which eludes description.”

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was an international bestseller and nominated for a National Book Award in 1970.

“If you want to know what it was like to live at the bottom of the heap before, during and after the American Depression, this exceptional book will tell you,” hailed British critic Paul Bailey.

The book became a mainstay of student reading lists, much to the chagrin of some authorities. The book has reportedly been banned numerous times.

Angelou’s mastery of literature trumped those who tried to keep her down. She knew that storytelling always won in the end.

“I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine … before she realizes she’s reading,” Angelou once said.

Opinion: How Maya Angelou gave me life

On Wednesday, people of all ages and backgrounds took to social media to say what her life’s work meant to them.

Adrian Sean of Detroit posted a CNN iReport tribute, saying, “I cannot describe the feeling I had when I read ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ for the first time, and knew someone else in the world had been through extreme hardships just as I had.

“She not only survived, but she thrived just by being herself,” she said. “Maya Angelou was and still is a teacher, a mentor, and a friend to me. Her impact on my life will always have a special place in my heart.”