Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington in this February 15, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files
President Obama praised poet and author Maya Angelou as "one of the brightest lights of our time" in a statement mourning her death at age 86 Wednesday morning.
"Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things - an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer. But above all, she was a storyteller - and her greatest stories were true," Mr. Obama 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."
The president noted that his mother was inspired to name his sister Maya after Angelou.
Despite their shared experience of being influential figures in the black community, Angelou at first supported Hillary Clinton over then-candidate Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. At the time, Angelou, who was partly raised in Arkansas, had a closer relationship with the Clintons throughout their careers. She was chosen by Bill Clinton to deliver a poem at his 1993 inaugural, becoming only the second poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Angelou was not selected to deliver the poem at Mr. Obama's inauguration in 2009.
Bill Clinton also issued a statement saying the U.S. had lost a "national treasure" and himself and Hillary "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," Clinton said. "I will always be grateful for her electrifying reading of 'On the Pulse of Morning' at my first inaugural, and even more for all the years of friendship that followed."
She eventually became a strong supporter of Mr. Obama, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 2011.
During the 2012 election, however, Angelou praised the president, saying he, "he has done a remarkable job, knowing how much he has been opposed." In an interview with The Guardian in February 2012, she said Republican opposition is rooted in the fact that he is a Democrat and the first black president.
Later, however, she didn't hide her criticism of his education policy, joining more than 120 authors and illustrators last year in urging the president to limit the amount of testing mandated in his Race to the Top initiative. In an MSNBC appearance at the time, Angelou said the program felt like a "contest" that measured "not what did you learn, but how much you can memorize."