Maya Angelou Biography

Maya Angelou was a famous writer, activist, singer, and actor, known best for her autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Read on for detailed information about his childhood, profile, career and timeline

Quick Facts

Birthday: April 4, 1928

Nationality: American

Famous: Quotes By Maya Angelou Black Poets

Died At Age: 86

Sun Sign: Aries

Also Known As: Marguerite Annie Johnson

Born in: St. Louis

Famous as: Author

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

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Spouse/Ex-: Enistasious Tosh Angelos, Paul du Feu, Vusumzi Make

father: Bailey Johnson

mother: Vivian Baxter Johnson

siblings: Bailey Johnson Jr.

children: Guy Johnson

Died on: May 28, 2014

place of death: Winston-Salem

Personality: ENFJ

U.S. State: Missouri

More Facts

education: George Washington High School, California Labor School

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

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Maya Angelou was a distinguished writer who witnessed a lot of domestic crisis as a child. At the young age of seven, she faced abuse in the form of rape, by her mother's boyfriend. Along with her older brother, she was forced to travel places while growing up, unable to settle down in one place for a long time. Despite having a difficult childhood and adolescence, her spirit did not take a beating. She began earning for herself as a cab driver, and then became a dancer and singer. Soon, she learnt several languages on a tour to Europe, and showed a 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 forty-one. The book received favourable reviews and she gradually became an established writer. She also acted in musicals, tried her hand at directing movies, and even writing and producing a documentary. She is also known for her feminist beliefs, which are most evident through her famous poem, 'Phenomenal Woman'. Having campaigned for many charitable causes, and made a mark as a poet, the death of this writer was mourned by many famous people

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Childhood & Early Life
  • Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 to Bailey, a dietician and Vivian Johnson, a nurse, in St. Louis, Missouri. Marguerite had an older brother, Bailey Jr., and the two children 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 it was the time of the economic crisis known as 'Great Depression', Annie was quite well off, 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.
  • The young girl confided in her brother, and Bailey Jr. told the rest of the family. Freeman was arrested for only a day, after which he was released. However, he was found murdered after a few days, and though the culprit 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. The two young children returned to Stamps, to their grandmother's house.
  • Here the girl was tutored by Mrs Bertha Flowers, who introduced the former to works of authors like Dickens and Shakespeare, and also black women writers, 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 from the 'California Labor School'. During this time she began working as a cab driver, becoming the first black woman to have done so.
  • In the early 1950s, in San Francisco, she began learning dance, and got acquainted to famous performers of the time Ruth Beckford and Alvin Ailey. For some time, Maya showcased her talent as a dancer at various organizations, teaming up with Alvin, and naming their pair, 'Al and Rita'.
  • She soon travelled to New York City, with the aim of training under African dance instructor, Pearl Primus. She trained for a year, and then came back to San Francisco.
  • In 1954, the artiste danced in various nightclubs of the city to earn a living, including the famous 'Purple Onion'. Till then she was known as Marguerite or Rita, but she soon changed her name to Maya Angelou, because it suited her personality of a calypso dancer.
  • From 1954-55, the calypso performer went on a Europe tour, accompanying the crew of the musical, 'Porgy and Bess'. During her stay there, she made it a point to pick up the language of each place that she went to.
  • In 1951, Angelou married Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother.
  • Within two years, she had released her debut album, titled 'Miss Calypso'. The album formed the basis of a movie in the same year, 'Calypso Heat Wave'. In both the album and the film, it was Angelou who wrote and performed her own songs.
  • 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, in 1960, she had the privilege of meeting human rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Inspired, novelist Killens and the new aspiring writer held a musical programme titled 'Cabaret for Freedom'. The show was meant to fund the 'Southern Christian Leadership Conference' ('SCLC').
  • It was at this time, that 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 also tried dabbling in acting with a performance in a play by French writer Jean Genet, titled 'The Blacks'. 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 newspaper 'The Arab Observer', as an assistant editor.
  • The next year, she travelled to Ghana's city of Accra, and stayed there till 1965. During her stay there, she worked at the 'University of Ghana' and as an editor for 'The African Review. She also freelanced as a contributor for the 'Ghanaian Times', and 'Radio Ghana', occasionally acting at the 'National Theatre'.
  • It was in Ghana, that she met social activist Malcolm X, and she went back to the United States to assist him in founding the 'Organization of Afro-American Unity'. After Malcolm's murder some time later, she moved to Hawaii, to be with her brother. There she performed as a singer for some time, before travelling once again to Los Angeles.
  • In 1967, she settled down in New York, and resumed her writing, producing several plays and even acting in them. The same year, she also met 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 realize this goal, Luther was assassinated on April 4, the day the popular singer-writer turned forty.
  • The same year, she produced a documentary series containing ten parts, 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 with readers the experiences she went through in the first seventeen years of her life. The book became an instant hit and Angelou shot to fame as a writer. Two years later she wrote a collection of poems, 'Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie'.
  • In 1972, she wrote a screenplay, 'Georgia, Georgia', becoming the first black woman to write a film script. The following year she acted in a Broadway musical, 'Look Away', along with co-actress Geraldine Page.
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  • Maya's second autobiography, 'Gather Together in My Name', was published in 1974, which like the first book was received well by critics and ardent fans alike. Two years later, she brought out another autobiography titled 'Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas'.
  • In 1977, the shy actress was cast in 'Roots', a television series based on Alex Haley's book by the same name, portraying the hardships faced by 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, named ‘The Heart of a Woman’, and ‘All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes’, both proving her calibre once again. She also joined the ‘Wake Forest University’ in North Carolina as a lecturer under the ‘Reynolds Professorship of American Studies’, granted to her by the institution.
  • During the same period, 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 was the second poet to receive the privilege, after Robert Frost's recitation on the first day of President Kennedy's presidency.
  • Her next public recitation was in 1995 with the poem 'A Brave and Startling Truth', performed on 'United Nations' golden jubilee celebrations. The following year, she released a music album 'Been Found', in association with singers Ashford & Simpson.
  • In 1998, she became the first African-American woman to direct a movie, 'Down in the Delta', starring 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 tried her hand at writing 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 by the ‘Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial’, Washington, D.C., as an advisor. 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’ published in 1969. The book uses Angelou’s life to touch upon the subjects of sexual exploitation, identity crisis, and literacy of a woman 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 the book, 'Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie'. Two years later, she got a 'Tony Award' nomination for her performance in the Broadway, 'Look Away'.
  • From 1994-96, this writer was awarded the 'Grammy' on two occasions in the 'Best Spoken Word Album' category, for poems 'On the Pulse of Morning', and 'Phenomenal Woman'.
  • In 2000, she received the 'National Medal of Arts', the highest honour presented to an artist by the government of the United States of America.
  • Three years later, in 2003, she won another ‘Grammy’, for ‘A Song Flung Up to Heaven’, in the 'Best Spoken Word Album' category.
  • This famous activist-writer has been awarded the ‘Lincoln Medal’ and ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ in the 2000s. She has also received honorary degrees from more than fifty educational institutions.
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Personal Life & Legacy
  • When she was seventeen years old, she became a mother to a boy, who she named Clyde. Clyde changed his name later to Guy Johnson, and like his mother, he is also a successful writer.
  • In 1951, she got married Tosh Angelos, a Greek sailor, living with 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 earlier married to feminist Germaine Greer. The couple separated after almost eight years of marriage.
  • On May 28, 2014, the celebrated writer died, and 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.
  • Recently, a stamp containing the quote "A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song", was issued by the 'United States Postal Service', to honour this brilliant African-American feminist poet and singer. The quote is often mistaken to be hers, whereas it is actually by poet Joan Walsh Anglund


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

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- Maya Angelou Biography
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Last Updated
- July 31, 2017
Maya Angelou

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