Poet, author, playwright, educator, civil rights activist, singer, actress: these were the many faces of Maya Angelou. A living testament to the strength of the human spirit, Angelou courageously shared her tales of personal heartache, loss and triumph. A recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, Angelou had a tremendous influence on contemporary literature and on the fight for human rights.
Maya Angelou’s Early Days
Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, Angelou lived with her parents in St. Louis, Missouri, until she was 3 years old, at which point her parents divorced. She and her brother then lived with her grandmother in Arkansas.
During a visit with her mother, the 7-year-old Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. In retaliation, Angelou’s uncle killed the boyfriend, and the guilt Angelou experienced caused the young girl to cease talking altogether. At the age of 13, Angelou started to speak again and moved to San Francisco with her mother and brother.
Although she received a scholarship to study dance and drama in high school, Angelou dropped out and became the first female African-American cable car conductor in San Francisco (one of a number of “firsts” Angelou would achieve during her lifetime). During her teen years, she ended up living on the street for a time. She later returned to high school and graduated before giving birth to her son, Guy, at the age of 16. After her son was born Angelou took a number of jobs to support her small family that included waiting tables, singing, dancing and cooking.
At the age of 24, Angelou married Tosh Angelos, a Greek sailor, and began singing in nightclubs under the name Maya Angelou. After the couple divorced, Angelou kept her new last name and started touring in the European production of “Porgy and Bess.” She released her first album as a recording artist in 1957.
Sources in this Story
- Academy of Achievement: Maya Angelou Biography
- Poets.org: Maya Angelou
- Dr. Maya Angelou: Biography
- NPR: At 80, Maya Angelou Reflects on a ‘Glorious’ Life
- YouTube: Maya Angelou’s poem from Clinton’s 1993 inauguration
- Washington Post: Maya Angelou, writer and poet, dies at age 86
In the late 1950s Angelou began to develop the craft she is most known for today: her writing. Living in New York, Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild. Along with developing her writing Angelou continued to perform in plays.
She then moved to Cairo, Egypt, and during her time living in Africa she was editor of the Arab Observer. She later moved to Ghana and worked at a school of arts, and wrote for the Ghanian Times. During this period of her life Angelou met Malcolm X. It was also during this time that she developed her flair for languages; she was fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and West African Fanti.
After she returned to the United States, Angelou became involved in the civil rights movement. After the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Angelou began to work on her writing again.
According to an interview with NPR, Angelou was coerced into writing one of her most well-known works, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by a bit of reverse psychology on the part of her editor, who told her that it would be impossible to do. “The truth is that [my editor] had talked with James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.’”
That work spent two years on the New York Times Paper Non-fiction Best-Seller List; it was the longest time spent on the list by an African-American author.
The Woman and Her Work
- “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”
- “Letter to My Daughter”
- “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou”
The Rest of the Story
Angelou went on to write many more inspirational works. Her books and poems have been highly praised and have received many national honors including the National Book Award for “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die.”
Angelou’s accomplishments reached far beyond her writing; she was also a renowned speaker, playwright, screenwriter, director and performer. She won Grammys for her spoken word albums, and has been nominated for a Tony award (for her performance in Look Away) and an Emmy (for her performance in Roots). She also recited a poem at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.
Although Angelou did not attend college, her life experiences and accomplishments earned her a number of honorary degrees and honorary doctorate degrees from prestigious colleges and universities around the country. She has also spent a great deal of time working as a professor.
Angelou died May 28, 2014 at the age of 86. In 2017, a documentary about her life, “Maya Angelou: And I Still Rise” debuted on PBS.