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Maya Angelou

(1928-2014), American

Biography

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Anne Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her older brother, Bailey Johnson, Jr., could not pronounce her name when he was little, so he called her Mya Sister, then My, which eventually became Maya. When Angelou was three years old, her parents divorced and sent their children to live in the rural, segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas, with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. During their teens, they lived with their mother, Vivian Baxter, in California. At the age of fifteen, Angelou began her career as a civil-rights activist of sorts. She battled racism with dogged persistence and succeeded in becoming the first African American hired to the position of streetcar conductor in San Francisco.

Angelou has remained a civil-rights activist throughout her life. At the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter also respected her leadership qualities. Ford appointed her to the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Advisory Commission, and Carter appointed her to the National Commission on the Observance of the International Woman’s Year. At President Bill Clinton’s request, she wrote and delivered a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” for his 1993 presidential inauguration, becoming only the second poet in American history to receive such an honor.

Maya Angelou’s work in the arts includes writing, film, and theater. She moved to New York and earned a role in the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. Along with the rest of the cast, she toured nearly two-dozen countries in Europe and Africa from 1954 to 1955. After marrying a South African freedom fighter, Angelou lived in Cairo, for several years, where she edited an English-language newspaper. Later, she taught at the University of Ghana and edited the African Review.

Angelou often shared stories about her unusual, intense, and poignant childhood, and her friends and associates encouraged her to write an autobiography. In 1969, Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first in a series of autobiographical works. It quickly became a best-seller and was nominated for the National Book Award. Angelou’s Georgia, Georgia became the first original screenplay by a black woman to be produced and filmed. Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie, a collection of poetry, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Angelou was also nominated for an Emmy award for her performance in the film adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. By 1995, she had spent two years on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller list, becoming the first African American author to achieve such success.

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SparkNotes

Maya Angelou Quotes

The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the Black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country's table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast.

I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me "I love you." … There is an African saying which is: "Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt."

Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.

My dear, when people show you who they are, why don't you believe them? Why must you be shown 29 times before you can see who they really are? Why can't you get it the first time?

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Autobiographies

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

    (1969: Up to 1944)

  • Gather Together in My Name

    (1974: 1944–48)

  • Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas

    (1976: 1949–55)

  • The Heart of a Woman

    (1981: 1957–62)

  • All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes

    (1986: 1962–65)

  • A Song Flung Up to Heaven

    (2002: 1965–68)

  • Mom & Me & Mom

    (2013)

Poetry

  • Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie

    (1971)