How the Late, Great Maya Angelou Once “Walked the Precipice” of Drug Addiction

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Maya Angelou has passed away at age 86. The globally revered author, poet and activist was a powerful voice of hope for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and her story speaks to anyone who has risen from a dark place.

Angelou documented her life in her series of seven autobiographies. The first—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings(1969)—made her an internationally-acclaimed author and a symbol of overcoming struggle. In her books, she discussed growing up in the South during Jim Crow, and wrote frankly about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was a child. She later worked as a brothel madam and a sex worker.

She also “flirted,” in her late teens and early twenties, with drugs. In Gather Together in My Name (1974), she described a pivotal moment when a friend made her watch him shoot up heroin, and it dissuaded her from continuing down that path: “He slouched, nodding, his mouth open and the saliva sliding down his chin as slowly as the blood had flowed down his arm,” she wrote. “I had walked the precipice and seen it all; and at the critical moment, one man’s generosity pushed me safely away from the edge.”

Angelou wrote more than 30 books, won numerous awards, and was honored last year by the National Book Awards for her service to the literary community. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. ”Look where we’ve all come from … coming out of darkness, moving toward the light,” she once said. “It is a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.”

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