Maya Angelou was an American memoirist, popular poet, and civil rights activist who was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 and died on May 28, 2014. She wrote seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and she is credited with over 50 plays, movies, and television shows. She was the recipient of dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and adolescent years. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), chronicles her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international acclaim.
She became a poet and writer after working odd jobs throughout her adolescence. These jobs included 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 decolonization. She was also an actress, playwright, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television shows. She was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1982. She was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Beginning in the 1990s, she made approximately 80 appearances per year on the lecture circuit, which she continued into her eighties. Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" (1993) at Bill Clinton's first inauguration in 1993, becoming the first poet to do so since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.
Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was regarded as a voice for Black people and women, and her works were regarded as a defense of Black culture. Her works are widely used in schools and universities around the world, despite attempts to ban her books from some U.S. libraries.
Many critics consider Angelou's most celebrated works to be autobiographies rather than autobiographical fiction. By critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre, she made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography. Her books cover topics such as racism, identity, family, and travel.
Marguerite Annie Johnson was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse, and card dealer. Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya," derived from "My" or "Mya Sister." Their parents' "calamitous marriage" ended when Angelou was three and her brother was four, and their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson.
Angelou's grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II as "an astonishing exception" to the harsh economics of African Americans at the time because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities, and "she made wise and honest investments."
When Angelou was seven years old, and her brother was eight, their father "came to Stamps without warning" and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis. Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman when she was eight years old and living with her mother. She informed her brother, who then informed the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but only served one day in prison. He was murdered four days after his release, most likely by Angelou's uncles.
Angelou went deaf for nearly five years, believing, as she stated, that "My voice, I thought, had killed him; I had killed that man because I had told him his name. Then I realized I'd never speak again because my voice would kill anyone." According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography of Angelou, it was during this period of silence that Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, love of books and literature, and ability to listen to and observe the world around her.
Angelou and her brother were returned to their grandmother shortly after Freeman's murder when Angelou was eight, and her brother was nine. She attended the Lafayette County Training School, a Rosenwald School, in Stamps. Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a teacher and family friend, is credited with helping Angelou speak again, challenging her by saying, "You do not love poetry, not until you speak it."
Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, as well as Black female artists such as Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset, all of whom had an impact on her life and career.
Angelou and her brother moved back in with their mother, who had moved to Oakland, California, when they were fourteen and fifteen, respectively. Angelou attended the California Labor School during WWII. She was the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco when she was 16 years old. She was so taken with the uniforms of the operators that her mother referred to it as her "dream job."
Her mother encouraged her to apply but warned her that she would have to arrive early and work harder than others. Angelou was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials in 2014 as part of a session titled "Women Who Move the Nation." She gave birth to her son, Clyde, three weeks after finishing high school, at the age of seventeen (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson)
1951-1961: Adulthood and Early Career
Tosh Angelos, a Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician, and Angelou wed in 1951 despite the time's condemnation of inter-racial unions and her mother's opposition. During this time, she took modern dance classes and got to know Ruth Beckford and Alvin Ailey, two dancers and choreographers. Al and Rita, a dance team that Ailey and Angelou founded, gave performances of modern dance at fraternal Black organizations all over San Francisco, but they were never particularly successful.
In order for Angelou to study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, she and her son moved to New York City. A year later, they returned to San Francisco. Following the dissolution of her marriage in 1954, Angelou performed professionally in nightclubs throughout San Francisco, including The Purple Onion, where she sang and danced to calypso music.
She had previously gone by the names "Marguerite Johnson" or "Rita," but she changed it to "Maya Angelou" on the adamant advice of her managers and supporters at The Purple Onion (her nickname and former married surname). She stood out thanks to her "distinctive name," which also perfectly encapsulated the spirit of her calypso dance performances. In 1954 and 1955, Angelou performed in a Porgy and Bess opera production that toured Europe. She started the habit of learning the local tongue in each place she traveled, and in a short period of time, she became multilingual.
Taking advantage of the calypso's growing popularity, Angelou recorded Miss Calypso in 1957. In 1996, it was reissued as a CD. She made an off-Broadway appearance in a review that served as the basis for the 1957 movie Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and played her own music.
After meeting author John Oliver Killens in 1959, Angelou decided to relocate to New York to focus on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she first received publication and met several notable African-American writers, including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield. She and Killens organized "The Legendary" Cabaret for Freedom to support the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1960 after getting to know civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing him speak; she was then given the title of SCLC's Northern Coordinator.
She made successful and "eminently effective" contributions to civil rights as an SCLC organizer and fundraiser, according to scholar Lyman B. Hagen. During this time, Angelou also started her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism. When Fidel Castro arrived at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, New York, for the 15th General Assembly of the UN on September 19, 1960, she had joined the crowd cheering for him.
The first produced screenplay by a Black woman was Maya Angelou's Georgia, Georgia, which was released in 1972 and was made by a Swedish production company and filmed in Sweden. Despite having little additional involvement in the movie's filming, she also wrote the soundtrack. In 1973, in San Francisco, Angelou wed Paul du Feu, a Welsh carpenter who had previously been married to author Germaine Greer. According to Gillespie, "She [Angelou] had accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime" over the course of the following ten years.
Angelou worked as a composer, composing music for singer Roberta Flack and film scores. She published articles, short stories, television scripts, documentaries, autobiographies, and poetry. She has written plays and served as a visiting professor at several colleges and universities. She was a "reluctant actor" who was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in Look Away in 1973. As a theatre director, she directed a revival of Errol John's play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at London's Almeida Theatre in 1988.
Angelou made a guest appearance in the television miniseries Roots in 1977. During this time, she received numerous honors, including over thirty honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world. Angelou met Oprah Winfrey in the late 1970s when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey's close friend and mentor. Angelou and du Feu divorced in 1981.
She returned to the southern United States in 1981, feeling she needed to reconcile with her past, and accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she was one of only a few full-time African-American professors. She considered herself "a teacher who writes" from then on. Angelou taught philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theatre, and writing, among other subjects that reflected her interests.
Despite making many friends on campus, she "never quite lived down all of the criticism from people who thought she was more of a celebrity than an intellect and an overpaid figurehead," according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Her last course at Wake Forest was in 2011, but she had plans to teach another in late 2014. Her last appearance at the university was in late 2013. Angelou actively participated in the lecture circuit in a customized tour bus beginning in the 1990s and continuing into her eighties.
Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration in 1993, becoming the first poet to do so since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Her recitation increased the fame and recognition of her previous works, as well as broadened her appeal "across racial, economic, and educational boundaries." The poem's recording was nominated for a Grammy Award. In June 1995, she delivered what Richard Long called her "second 'public' poem," "A Brave and Startling Truth," commemorating the United Nations' 50th anniversary.
Angelou ran for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008, publicly supporting Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign ran ads featuring Angelou's endorsement in the run-up to the January Democratic primary in South Carolina. The ads were part of the campaign's efforts to rally support in the Black community; however, Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary by 29 points over Clinton, with 80% of the Black vote. When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou backed Obama, who went on to win the presidential election and become the country's first African-American president. "We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism," she said after Obama's inauguration.
At the age of 85, Angelou published Mom & Me & Mom, the seventh volume of her autobiography series, which focuses on her relationship with her mother.
Honors & Awards
Universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups all honored Angelou. Her accolades included a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry collection, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammy nominations for her spoken word albums. She was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1994, the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Angelou received over fifty honorary degrees. The United States Mint announced in 2021 that Angelou would be one of the first women to appear on the reverse of a quarter as part of the American Women quarters series. The coins will be available in January 2022. She is the first African-American woman to be depicted on a quarter.
Angelou passed away on May 28, 2014, at the age of 86. Despite reportedly being in poor health and canceling recent scheduled appearances, Angelou was working on another book, an autobiography about her interactions with national and world leaders. Her son Guy Johnson stated during her memorial service at Wake Forest University that despite being in constant pain due to her dancing career and respiratory failure, she wrote four books in the last ten years of her life. "She left this mortal plane with no loss of acuity or comprehension," he said.
Artists, entertainers, and world leaders paid tributes and condolences to Angelou, including Barack Obama, whose sister was named after Angelou, and Bill Clinton. The National Book Foundation's Harold Augenbraum stated that Angelou's "legacy is one that all writers and readers around the world can admire and aspire to." I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings debuted at number one on Amazon.com's bestseller list a week after Angelou's death.
Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, where Angelou had been a member for 30 years, held a public memorial service for her on May 29, 2014. On June 7, a private memorial service was held at Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel in Winston-Salem. The memorial was broadcast live on local stations in the Winston-Salem/Triad area, and speeches from her son, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Bill Clinton were delivered. A memorial service was held on June 15 at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, where Angelou had been a member for many years. Rev. Cecil Williams, Mayor Ed Lee, and former Mayor Willie Brown all addressed the crowd.