Maya Angelou (1928–2014)
aka: Marguerite Annie Johnson
Maya Angelou was an internationally renowned bestselling author, poet, actor, and performer, as well as a pioneering activist for the rights of African Americans and of women. Her first published book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), was an autobiographical account of her childhood, including the ten years she lived in Stamps (Lafayette County) with her grandmother. The popular and critical success of the book was the foundation of her career as an author and public figure, as well as the basis of her identification as an Arkansas author. She was in the first group of inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1993. She held over fifty honorary university degrees, along with many other awards recognizing her accomplishments in the arts and her service to human rights.
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey Johnson, who was a naval dietitian, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, who was a nurse. Angelou had one sibling, her older brother Bailey Jr.; he called her “Maya,” his version of “my sister.”
After the divorce of their parents in 1931, Marguerite and Bailey Jr. were sent to Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their uncle, Willie, in Stamps. Henderson owned a grocery store in the center of the black section of the small town and reared the children according to the strict Christian values common in the rural South at that time. The family encountered the racial prejudice of white customers in the store and of the community leaders generally. In her autobiography, Angelou recounted chafing at the attitudes she encountered of people who seemed to condone the limited opportunities available for black high school graduates of the time. Later, Angelou suggested that her faith and Christian beliefs—as well as her strong sense of fair play and realization of her own and others’ inner beauty—stemmed from these early experiences.
In 1935, the children were returned to the care of their mother in St. Louis but were sent back to Stamps after it was discovered that Marguerite had been sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was tried and convicted but then released; he was found dead soon after. The eight-year-old girl felt guilty and believed that her voice had caused the death of the rapist, so she became mute and remained so for several years.
The two children once again moved to be with their mother—this time to San Francisco, California. After dropping out of high school, Marguerite was briefly employed as a cable car conductor, the first black person ever to hold that position. She returned to Mission High School and earned a scholarship to study dance, drama, and music at San Francisco’s Labor School, where she also learned about the progressive ideologies that may have served as a foundation for her later social and political activism. In 1944, three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to her son, Claude (who later changed his name to Guy). She had no further formal education.
At age sixteen, in order to support herself and her son, she worked in many capacities: cocktail waitress, dancer, cook, and sex worker—all before the age of twenty-five. She used these life experiences to serve as themes in her works of prose and poetry.
At the age of twenty-one, she married a Greek sailor, Tosh Angelos. Before they divorced in 1952, when she was singing at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco, she created her professional name by combining a variation of his surname with her brother’s nickname for her, Maya. Eventually, she legally changed her name to Maya Angelou.
In 1954–55, she toured Europe and Africa in a State Department–sponsored production of the opera Porgy and Bess. In 1955, she moved with her son to New York City, where she studied modern dance with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. She appeared in television shows and released an album called Miss Calypso in 1957, also appearing in the film Calypso Heat Wave the same year. A composer of poems and song lyrics since her teen years, she continued to develop her writing skills.
She met prominent members of the African-American creative community and performed in Jean Genet’s The Blacks. With Godfrey Cambridge she produced Cabaret for Freedom, a fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Martin Luther King Jr., a leader in SCLC, recruited Angelou as its northern coordinator in 1960.
In the early 1960s, she met South African freedom fighter and civil rights advocate Vusumzi Make, a leader of the Pan Africanist Congress who was then living in New York City. They moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she became editor of the weekly newspaper the Arab Observer. In 1963, she and her son left Egypt for Ghana, where she met Malcolm X. She became an assistant administrator at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama and later a feature editor for the African Review, as well as a feature writer for the Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company, where she also recorded public service announcements.
While residing in Africa, she studied several languages: Fanti (a West African language), French, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic. An account of her time in Ghana was serialized in Essence magazine and was published in 1986 as All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.
Upon returning to the United States, Angelou rejoined the civil rights movement, working with Malcolm X in the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, and King was assassinated in 1968—on April 4, Angelou’s birthday.
In reaction to these events, Angelou—encouraged by novelist James Baldwin—began writing the first installment of her life story, including an account of her years in Arkansas. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was first published in 1970 and has since been translated into more than ten languages. Her experiences in the civil rights movement were a focus of a later autobiography, The Heart of a Woman (1981). Enjoying her burgeoning career as a writer, lecturer, and public personality following the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she wrote the screenplay for Georgia, Georgia, a Swedish-American film; it was the first screenplay by an African American to be filmed. A collection of her poems, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
Winning much critical acclaim and becoming a national figure who was always in demand for public appearances, she continued to maintain her political activism. The running themes in all of her works, both about herself and about the world, deal with the individual’s wish and right to survive in a non-hostile world. Believing that hatred and racism destroy that which is good and basic in humankind, she struggled to provide simple, down-to-earth solutions to the problems that threaten the world.
In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a Welsh writer and cartoonist who was previously married to activist and author Germaine Greer; she and du Feu divorced in 1980.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford appointed her to the Bicentennial Commission. In 1981, she received a lifetime appointment to the Reynolds Chair of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1993, she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She read her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” at the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations and “From a Black Woman to a Black Man” at the Million Man March in 1995.
Angelou had a distinctive and compelling speaking voice, and, at six feet tall, a powerful physical presence enhanced by her training in dance and stage performance. Angelou was nominated for a 1977 Emmy Award for her portrayal of Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in Alex Haley’s television miniseries Roots. Angelou appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and the Tavis Smiley Show. She also started a Hallmark greeting cards line called Life Mosaic. The movie Poetic Justice (1993) featured poetry written by Angelou and performed by Janet Jackson. Among other acting efforts, she appeared in How to Make an American Quilt (1995). In 1998, she made her film directing debut with Down in the Delta (1998). In 2006, she had a starring role in Tyler Perry’s Medea’s Family Reunion. In 2002, she won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000. On February 15, 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In 2013, she received the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation and the Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Norman Mailer Center.
Her body of published works includes autobiographies, numerous poetry collections, a book of essays, several plays, a screenplay, and a cookbook. Among her many works are Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (2004), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013).
After a period of ill health, Angelou was found dead by her caretaker on May 28, 2014, in North Carolina. In June 2014, the town of Stamps renamed its only park in her honor. On April 7, 2015, the U.S. Postal Service released a stamp in honor of Angelou. In March 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure to rename a post office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after Angelou. In January 2021, Mattel launched a Barbie in the likeness of Angelou as part of its “Inspiring Women” series. On January 10, 2022, Angelou became the first Black woman to appear on a U.S. quarter as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters program.
An exhibition of artifacts and photographs at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture, on display from November 2022 to November 2023, included Angelou.
For additional information:
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Maya Angelou. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Gillespie, Marcia, ed. Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
Lisandrelli, Elaine. Maya Angelou: More Than a Poet. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.
Lupton, Mary Jane. Maya Angelou: The Iconic Self. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2016.
Maya Angelou Papers. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library, New York, New York.
Mickle, Mildred R., ed. Critical Insights: Maya Angelou. Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, 2016.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
Patricia Washington McGraw
Little Rock, Arkansas
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