Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

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 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s request, 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, Egypt, 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 Die, 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.

Out of her seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is probably Angelou’s most popular and critically acclaimed volume. The book is now frequently read as a complement to fictional works that delve into the subject of racism, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It has often been cut from reading lists because it involves honest depictions of Angelou’s sexuality and her experience of being raped as a child. She wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at a time when autobiographies of women, and particularly Black women, had begun to proclaim women’s significance in the mainstream as thinkers and activists. Angelou’s book conveys the difficulties associated with the mixture of racial and gender discrimination endured by a southern Black girl. At the same time, she speaks to many other issues, such as the relationships between parents and children, child abuse, and the search for one’s own path in life.

Read more about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Maya Angelou, who wrote four books in the last ten years of her life and maintained a demanding schedule in spite of constant pain resulting from her dancing career and respiratory failure, passed away on May 28, 2014 at the age of 86.