Back in the United States, working as northern coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, she was devastated in 1968 when King was assassinated on her birthday.
The list of her published verse, nonfiction and fiction now includes more than 30 bestselling titles, including the landmark "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."
Angelou's script for "Georgia, Georgia," the first scriptwriting by a black woman to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She played Kunta Kinte's grandmother in Alex Haley's "Roots." She's served on two presidential committees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008 and has received three Grammy Awards.
Angelou has received more than 30 honorary degrees and is the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
There, she delights in teaching students from varied backgrounds.
"I teach one class: World Poetry and Dramatic Performance," she said. "I ask my students to look at the poetry of the world. We study really intensely and then, at the end of the class, we do a concert for the town.
"I take students undergraduate and graduate and law and medical and it's just wonderful because, many students, have been traumatized because they've been told poetry is difficult!" she said, with a chuckle. "Those teachers, they injure the students. Poetry is written for all human beings."
With a talent for pointing out the obvious that most people don't see, she tells her students that they are not really listening to the music of jazz and rock and country and blues musicians.
"They have those lyrics down, and they don't realize those lyrics are poetry," she said. "Poetry helps us to learn to like ourselves and to be our own best friend and to understand ourselves. People love poetry."
Again, when told she has a knack for putting concepts into simple yet beautiful terms and a grand understanding for human nature, she is humble.
"It's a blessing. If you are 62 and a man born in Yazoo, Mississippi, and Jewish, I know a lot about you and you know a lot about me. I don't know what language you speak, but I can learn it. I don't know what you call god, or if you have a god, but I know that you weep, you laugh, you get hungry, you have feeling for children. If you were a zebra or a flea or a crocodile, I wouldn't know these things."
Angelou isn't reading anything in particular right now, because it is a distraction from her writing.
"Ahhh . . . well, I just sent some books back to my library," she said. "I am writing right now. I sent them back so I would use this yellow pad." And what is she writing?
"Some lyrics for country music. I'm going to send this one I'm working on now to Ronnie Dunn. He's done a video called 'We All Bleed Red,' and he called me and asked if he could use a picture of mine in it. The video is wonderful. I'm in some very high cotton," she said, laughing. "I'm in it with the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa."
Her musical tastes run the gamut -- she tells of Naomi Judd and Martina McBride coming to her Winston-Salem home to sing to her.
But on Saturday mornings, it's European classical.
"It's Chopin. And I like to play it loudly. I'm more a Chopin fan than any other," she said, her voice trailing off. "But then that depends on the time of day, really."
Teaching at Wake Forest is a perfect fit for Angelou, as she is a proponent of liberal arts education.
"I've given the convocation at Duke for 25 years now, and I always tell them, 'At last, you are in the place where you can drop those buckets of ignorance and learn.'"
Reach Sara Busse at sara.bu...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.