Maya Angelou is a poet and award-winning author known for her acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her numerous poetry and essay collections.
Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou spent her difficult formative years moving back and forth between her mother's and grandmother's. At age eight, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was subsequently killed by her uncles. The event caused the young girl to go mute for nearly six years, and her teens and early twenties were spent as a dancer, filled with isolation and experimentation.
At 16 she gave birth to a son, Guy, after which she toured Europe and Africa in the musical Porgy and Bess. On returning to New York City in the 1960s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and became involved in black activism. She then spent several years in Ghana as editor of African Review, where she began to take her life, her activism and her writing more seriously.
Maya Angelou's five-volume autobiography commenced with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970. The memoirs chronicle different eras of her life and were met with critical and popular success. Later books include All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) and My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994). She has published several volumes of verse, including And Still I Rise (1987) and Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1995). Her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die (1971), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1993, Angelou read ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at Bill Clinton's Presidential inauguration, a poem written at his request. It was only the second time a poet had been asked to read at an inauguration, the first being Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. In 2006, Angelou agreed to host a weekly radio show on XM Satellite Radio's Oprah & Friends channel. She also teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she has a lifetime position as the Reynolds professor of American studies.
Drawing from her own life experiences, Angelou published Letter to My Daughter in 2008. She wrote the work for the daughter she never had, sharing anecdotes and offering advice. Well received, the book earned several honors, including a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work-Non-Fiction.
Martin Luther King Jr., a close friend of Angelou's, was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968. Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King's widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta's death in 2006.
Angelou was good friends with TV personality Oprah Winfrey, who has organized several birthday celebrations for the award-winning author, including a week-long cruise for her 70th birthday in 1998.
After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The news of her passing spread quickly with many people taking to social media to mourn and remember Angelou. Singer Mary J. Blige and politician Cory Booker were among those who tweeted their favorite quotes by her in tribute. President Barack Obama also issued a statement about Angelou, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Angelou “had the ability to remind us that we are all God's children; that we all have something to offer,” he wrote.
September 15, 1977
May 28, 2014
- When she was 14 years old, she dropped out of school to become San Francisco's first African-American female cable car conductor.
- She never went to college but has received more than 50 honorary degrees.
- She befriended Malcolm X ‐ and planned on helping him build his new Organization of Afro-American Unity ‐ before he was killed.
- She was the first black woman director and producer for 20th Century Fox.
- She was friends with James Baldwin, who helped guide her in writing I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
- She considered Oprah Winfrey her dear friend and the daughter she always wanted.