Maya Angelou Biography

(American Poet and Civil Rights Activist Known for Her Autobiography ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’)

Birthday: April 4, 1928 (Aries)

Born In: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Maya Angelou was an American poet, civil rights activist, and writer. She is known for publishing seven autobiographies that chronicle her childhood and teenage experiences. Maya faced a lot of domestic crises as a child. At the young age of eight, she was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. While growing up, she did not have a place to settle down and had to travel to many places along with her older brother. Despite having a difficult childhood and adolescence, she did not let her spirit to be broken. She started working as a cab driver, and then became a dancer and singer. Soon, she learnt several languages while on a tour to Europe, and showed keen interest in English literature. She befriended established African-American writers who motivated her to pursue writing as a career. Maya published her first autobiography. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, at the age of 41. The book received favorable reviews and she gradually became an established writer. She also acted in musicals, tried her hand at directing movies, and even wrote and produced a documentary. She is also known for her feminist thoughts, as mentioned in her famous poem 'Phenomenal Woman.'

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Marguerite Annie Johnson

Died At Age: 86


Spouse/Ex-: Enistasious Tosh Angelos (m. 1951–1954), Paul du Feu (m. 1974–1983)

father: Bailey Johnson

mother: Vivian Baxter Johnson

siblings: Bailey Johnson Jr.

children: Guy Johnson

Partner: Vusumzi Make (1961–1962)

Born Country: United States

Poets American Women

Height: 6'0" (183 cm), 6'0" Females

Died on: May 28, 2014

place of death: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, United States

Personality: ENFJ

U.S. State: Missouri

City: St. Louis, Missouri

Humanitarian Work: Associated with ‘Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial’

  • 1

    What impact did Maya Angelou have on literature and civil rights?

    Maya Angelou made significant contributions to literature as a poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. Through her powerful writing and public speaking, she inspired generations and advocated for social justice.

  • 2

    What was Maya Angelou's writing style known for?

    Maya Angelou's writing style was known for its lyrical and emotional depth. She often used vivid imagery, personal experiences, and themes of resilience and empowerment in her works.

  • 3

    How did Maya Angelou's life experiences shape her work?

    Maya Angelou drew inspiration from her challenging life experiences, including racism, trauma, and overcoming adversity. These themes are reflected in her writing, adding a raw and authentic quality to her work.

  • 4

    What were some of Maya Angelou's most famous works?

    Maya Angelou is best known for her autobiographical works, including "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "The Heart of a Woman." She also wrote numerous poems, essays, and plays that continue to resonate with readers.

Childhood & Early Life

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, to Bailey, a doorman and navy dietician, and Vivian Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Marguerite had an older brother, Bailey Jr., and the two lived with their parents till the former was three years old.

When their parents separated, the siblings were sent to the town of Stamps, Arkansas, where they lived for a while with Annie Henderson, their paternal grandmother. Though the country was facing a major economic crisis (The Great Depression) at the time, Annie was financially strong, being the owner of a grocery store.

In the mid-1930s, their father, Bailey, took them back to St. Louis, and left them with their mother, Vivian. Here, Maya was sexually abused by her mother's new partner Freeman.

Maya told her brother about the abuse, and Bailey Jr. told the rest of the family. Freeman was arrested for a day, after which he was released. However, he was found murdered after a few days. Though the killer was never found, it was speculated that the children's uncles took revenge.

Following this incident, Maya blamed herself for the murder, and lost her voice for almost five years. Maya and her brother returned to Stamps, to their grandmother's house.

In Stamps, the girl was tutored by Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who introduced the former to works of authors like Dickens and Shakespeare. She also introduced her to the works of black women writers like Frances Harper and Jessie Fauset.

At the age of 14, Maya and her brother started living with their mother in Oakland, where she pursued her secondary education at 'California Labor School.' She also began working as a cab driver, becoming the first black woman to work as a cab driver at the age of 16.

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In the early-1950s, she began to develop an interest in dance and started dancing in San Francisco. Subsequently, she got acquainted with famous performers like Ruth Beckford and Alvin Ailey. For some time, Maya showcased her skills as a dancer at various organizations, teaming up with Alvin.

She then traveled to New York City in an attempt to train under African dance instructor Pearl Primus. She trained for a year, and then came back to San Francisco.

In 1954, she started dancing in various nightclubs, including the famous 'Purple Onion,' to earn a living. Till then, she was known as Marguerite or Rita, but she soon changed her name to Maya Angelou as it suited her profession.

From 1954 to 1955, she toured Europe, accompanying the crew of the musical 'Porgy and Bess.' During her stay in Europe, she tried her best to learn the languages of the places that she visited.

In 1951, Angelou married Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos. She married him despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother.

In 1957, she released her debut album titled 'Miss Calypso' in which she had written and performed her own songs. She then made an appearance in an off-Broadway review which inspired the 1957 movie 'Calypso Heat Wave.' In the film, Angelou appeared as herself, performing her own compositions.

In 1959, Maya was introduced to John Oliver Killens, a popular author, who had a profound influence on the former's career as a writer. On his suggestion, she began writing as a member of the 'Harlem Writers Guild' along with other established writers like Rosa Guy, Julian Mayfield, and John Henrik Clarke.

The following year, she had the privilege to meet human rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Inspired by his presence, novelist Killens and Maya held a musical program titled 'Cabaret for Freedom.' The show was meant to fund the 'Southern Christian Leadership Conference' (SCLC).

Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro, she began crusading for human rights, and anti-apartheid ideals.

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In 1961, the writer-singer tried her hand at acting by performing in a play titled 'The Blacks' by French writer Jean Genet. She was accompanied by other African-American actors like Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Brown, and Abbey Lincoln.

During the same time, she was also employed by 'The Arab Observer' for which she worked as an assistant editor.

The next year, she traveled to Ghana's city of Accra, and stayed there till 1965. During her stay in Accra, she worked at the 'University of Ghana.' She also worked as an editor for 'The African Review.’ She also freelanced as a contributor to 'Ghanaian Times' and 'Radio Ghana,' occasionally acting at the 'National Theatre.'

It was in Ghana that she met social activist Malcolm X. Subsequently, she went back to the United States to assist him in founding the 'Organization of Afro-American Unity.' After Malcolm's murder, she moved to Hawaii to be with her brother. There, she performed as a singer for some time, before traveling to Los Angeles.

In 1967, she settled down in New York, and resumed writing. She wrote several plays, even acting in some of them. The same year, she also met her old friends, writers Rosa Guy and James Baldwin.

Martin Luther King Jr. requested Maya's help in coordinating a civil rights march in 1968. However, before they could organize the march, Luther was assassinated on April 4, the day Maya turned 40.

The same year, she produced a documentary series titled 'Blacks, Blues, Black!' The documentary, depicting African-Americans' contribution to blues music, was released for the 'National Educational Television.'

In 1969, she wrote her first autobiography 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' sharing the experiences of the first 17 years of her life. The book became an instant hit and Angelou became popular as a writer. Two years later, she wrote a collection of poems, 'Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore IDiiie.’

In 1972, she wrote the screenplay for 'Georgia, Georgia,' becoming the first black woman to write a film script. The following year, she acted alongside Geraldine Page in a Broadway musical titled ‘Look Away.’

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Maya's second autobiography 'Gather Together in My Name' was published in 1974. Like her first autobiography, the book was received well by critics and fans alike. Two years later, she came up with another autobiography titled 'Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas.'

In 1977, she was cast in 'Roots,' a television series based on Alex Haley's book of the same name. The series showcased the hardships faced by the African slaves in the 18th century. Later that decade, she met celebrity TV presenter Oprah Winfrey, becoming her friend and guide in the years to come.

In the 1980s, she released two more autobiographies, namely ‘The Heart of a Woman’ and ‘All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes.’ The books once again proved her mettle as a writer. She also joined the ‘Wake Forest University’ in North Carolina as a lecturer under ‘Reynolds Professorship of American Studies,’ granted to her by the institution.

Around the same time, she directed 'Moon,' a play by Errol John, which was performed at London's 'Almeida Theatre.'

In 1993, Angelou was invited by President Bill Clinton to read out her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' at his swearing-in ceremony. She became the second poet to receive such an honor, after Robert Frost's recitation on the first day of Kennedy's presidency.

Her next public recitation was in 1995 when she recited her poem 'A Brave and Startling Truth' at the 'United Nations' golden jubilee celebrations. The following year, she released a music album titled 'Been Found' in association with singers Ashford & Simpson.

In 1998, she became the first African-American woman to direct a movie. She directed 'Down in the Delta,' which starred Wesley Snipes and Alfre Woodard.

Her sixth autobiography ‘A Song Flung Up to Heaven,’ which became quite popular with readers, was published in 2002. The same decade, she released two cookbooks, ‘Hallelujah! The Welcome Table’ and ‘Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart.’

She also involved herself in the presidential campaigns of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2011, she was appointed as an advisor by the ‘Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial,’ Washington, D.C. Two years later, Maya released her last autobiography ‘Mom & Me & Mom’ which explores the writer’s bond with her mother.

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Major Works

This famous writer is known for her autobiography ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ which was published in 1969. The book exploits Angelou’s life to touch upon subjects like sexual exploitation, identity crisis, and literacy of women in a male-dominated society. The book was chosen as one of the contenders in 1970 for the ‘National Book Award’ in the United States.

Awards & Achievements

In 1971, Angelou was nominated for the 'Pulitzer Prize' for her book 'Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore IDiiie.' Two years later, she received a 'Tony Award' nomination for her performance in the Broadway 'Look Away.'

From 1994 to 1996, this writer was awarded the 'Grammy' on two occasions under the 'Best Spoken Word Album' category for her poems 'On the Pulse of Morning' and 'Phenomenal Woman.'

In 2000, she received the 'National Medal of Arts,' the highest honor presented to an artist by the government of the United States of America.

Three years later, she won another ‘Grammy’ for ‘A Song Flung Up to Heaven’ under the 'Best Spoken Word Album' category.

This famous activist-writer was awarded the ‘Lincoln Medal’ and ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ in the 2000s. She also received honorary degrees from more than 50 educational institutions.

Personal Life & Legacy

When she was 17 years old, she gave birth to a boy whom she named Clyde. Later on, Clyde changed his name to Guy Johnson. Like his mother, he is also a successful writer.

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In 1951, she got married to Tosh Angelos, a Greek sailor. She was married to him for almost three years.

For a brief period of time in the 1960s, Maya was in love with Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter, and lived with him in Cairo.

In 1973, she got married to a carpenter named Paul du Feu, who was previously married to feminist Germaine Greer. The couple separated after almost eight years of marriage.

On May 28, 2014, Maya Angelou passed away. Her funeral services were held at the ‘Mount Zion Baptist Church,’ Winston-Salem, and ‘Wait Chapel,’ on the premises of ‘Wake Forest University.’ The service was attended by eminent personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, and Michelle Obama.

Facts About Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was not only a renowned poet and author, but she was also a talented singer and dancer. She toured Europe in the 1950s as the lead in the opera "Porgy and Bess."

Maya Angelou was the first black woman to work as a cable car conductor in San Francisco. She took on this job during World War II when she was just 16.

In addition to her literary achievements, Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist and worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Maya Angelou was fluent in multiple languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Fanti (a West African language). She used her language skills to connect with people from diverse backgrounds.

Maya Angelou's famous autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," was groundbreaking for its candid exploration of race, identity, and trauma. It continues to be a powerful and influential work in literature.


Grammy Awards
2003 Best Spoken Word Album Winner
1996 Best Spoken Word or Non-musical Album Winner
1996 Best Spoken Word Album Winner
1994 Best Spoken Word or Non-musical Album Winner

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