Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014) was an American poet, civil rights activist, and memoirist. She is known for a long list of plays, movies, and television shows that span more than 50 years, as well as seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry. In addition to other honors, she received over 50 honorary degrees.
The seven books in her autobiography series, which focus on her childhood and adolescence, are what made Angelou famous. Her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which describes her life up to the age of 17, earned her worldwide acclaim and notoriety.
Early Life & Education
Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. Angelou had a difficult childhood. When her parents divorced when she was very young, she and her older brother, Bailey, were taken to live with their father’s mother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.
African American Angelou personally experienced racial prejudice and discrimination in Arkansas. Angelou was also abused by a family member when she was about seven years old: her mother’s lover molested her during a visit with her mother. Angelou’s uncles murdered the boyfriend in retaliation for the sexual assault. After being shocked by the event, Angelou ceased speaking. She returned to Arkansas and remained largely silent for many years.
During WWII, Angelou moved to San Francisco, California. She received a scholarship to the California Labor School, where she studied acting and dancing.
During this time, Angelou also became San Francisco’s first Black female cable car conductor, albeit for a short time.
As a young adult, Maya Angelou worked at a variety of odd jobs before discovering her calling as a poet and writer. Among them were a fry cook, sex worker, nightclub performer, Porgy and Bess cast member, Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinator, and correspondent in Egypt and Ghana during Africa’s independence.
Maya Angelou worked as a producer in addition to acting, writing, directing, and producing plays, films, and public television shows. In 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Throughout her Civil Rights Movement activism, she collaborated with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Maya began making around 80 appearances per year on the lecture circuit in the 1990s and continued to do so well into her nineties. Maya Angelou was the first poet to perform an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. She read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) during Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was Angelou’s first book in which she openly discussed her personal life. Her works were viewed as a defense of Black culture, and she was regarded as a voice for Black people and women.
Despite efforts to ban her books from some American libraries, her works are widely used in schools and institutions all over the world. Although many critics consider Angelou’s most famous works to be autobiographies, they have been classified as autobiographical fiction.
She set out to deliberately subvert the traditional format of the autobiography by criticizing, altering, and expanding the genre. She writes about racism, identity, family, and travel, among other things.
Angelou wrote seven autobiographies in total. Angelou’s third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, was the first third volume of an established African-American autobiography, according to scholar Mary Jane Lupton.
Her writings “extend over time and place,” covering events ranging from the outbreak of World War II to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Arkansas.
Her fifth autobiography, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, was released in 1986. Angelou describes returning to Ghana to learn more about her tribe’s history in it. Mom & Me & Mom, her sixth autobiography, was published in 2013 at the age of 85.
Critics have typically judged Angelou’s subsequent autobiographies “in light of the first,” with Caged Bird receiving the highest praise. Angelou’s five essay collections were described as “wisdom books” and “homilies linked together with autobiographical prose” by writer Hilton Als.
Robert Loomis, a Random House executive editor who retired in 2011 and has been dubbed “one of publishing’s hall of fame editors,” was Angelou’s editor throughout her literary career. We have a pretty well-known relationship among publishers, Angelou said of Loomis.
Although Angelou authored a number of poetry books, the most well-known being the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die from 1971. Other well-known poetry anthologies by Angelou include:
- 1971: ‘Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie’ (1971)
- 1975: Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, which includes Angelou’s poem “Alone”
- 1978: And Still I Rise, which features the beloved poem “Phenomenal Woman”
- 1983: Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?
- 1990: I Shall Not Be Moved, featuring the poem “Human Family”
- 1997: Even the Stars Look Lonesome
- 1993: ‘On the Pulse of Morning’
This poem by Maya Angelou, one of her most well-known pieces, was written especially for and presented at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony in January 1993. Since Robert Frost read his poem “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, this was the first inaugural reading. For the audiobook version of the poem, Angelou went on to win a Grammy Award (best-spoken word album). Among Angelou’s other well-known poems are:
- 1962: His Day Is Done, a tribute poem Angelou wrote for Nelson Mandela as he made his secret journey from Africa to London
- 2005: Amazing Peace, written by Angelou for the White House tree-lighting ceremony
Guy Angelou was born when Maya Angelou was 16 years old, in 1944. After giving birth, she worked several jobs to support herself and her child. Guy Johnson, Maya Angelou’s son, is also a poet.
Angelou married Greek sailor Anastasios Angelopoulos in 1952 and took his surname, which she combined with her childhood nickname, “Maya,” to form her professional name. The couple later divorced.
Angelou, who was known for keeping her weddings private, was probably married at least three times, including in 1973 to a carpenter named Paul du Feu.
Accomplishments and Awards
Angelou has received numerous awards throughout her career, including the Chicago International Film Festival’s 1998 Audience Choice Award and a nomination for Down in the Delta from the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999.
She also won two NAACP Image Awards for best literary work (nonfiction) for Letter to My Daughter (2008) and her 2005 cookbook.
Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after a long battle with health issues. The news of her departure quickly spread, and many people took to social media to express their grief and remember Angelou. Among those who remembered her with their favorite words were singer Mary J. Blige and politician Cory Booker.
In addition, President Barack Obama described Angelou as “a genuinely extraordinary woman, a brilliant writer, and a fierce friend” in a statement. “It was Angelou’s gift to serve as a constant reminder that we are all God’s children with something to contribute,” he wrote.
Angelou was announced as one of the first women to be honored with a new series of quarters from the United States Mint in May 2021.