Celebrated as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, Maya Angelou was a poet and an award-winning author most known for her 1969 memoir, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, among her other poetry and essay collections.
She had a diverse career that spans five decades. But, before she became a memoirist, poet, and screenwriter, she was first a singer, dancer, actress, journalist, and civil-rights activist. Let’s learn more about her life’s work with these inspiring Maya Angelou facts.
Who Is Maya Angelou?
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She had a difficult childhood. At a young age, her parents divorced, and she and her older brother were sent to live with their grandmother in Arkansas. It is where she experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination for being an African American.
At eight years old, while living with her mother, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Traumatized by the experience, she fell silent and spent five years as a virtual mute. In the next few years, Angelou was exposed to many progressive ideas with which she became involved. She studied drama and dance. She became the first black woman cable car conductor, got pregnant, and graduated high school. She got married but was divorced later.
While she is best known today for her writing. Being the author of 30+ books and the recipient of 50+ honorary degrees—she took many different jobs, which included being a cook, waitress, sex-worker, actress, singer, dancer, playwright, and journalist, to name a few. She traveled to perform in operas and appeared on many TV shows. She fought for civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She also served as an educator and a university professor.
Here’s a further look at the monumental achievements of the late Angelou, who passed away at 86 years old in 2014.
She worked with the civil rights movement.
As a civil rights activist, Angelou worked for the political efforts of MLK and Malcolm X. She met with the latter while living in Ghana, and in 1964, she flew back to the US to help the Black leader in his movements. However, soon after she arrived, Malcolm X was assassinated.
She continued working with the movement by helping raise funds for MLK. Sadly, she found herself devastated once again with the murder of MLK on her birthday in 1968. It was during this time when she started working on her ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’.
Her memoir was a New York Times Best-Seller for 2 years.
In her 1969 autobiography, Angelou recalled her childhood in Arkansas and the experience of becoming a mother at 16. The coming-of-age story also described how her love for literature has helped her overcome trauma and racism. The book instantly rose to become a New York Times best-seller and stayed on the list for two long years.
She was the first Black woman to do many things.
As a black woman, Angelou faced racial discrimination and prejudices. However, that did not stop her from following her dreams. When she was 14, she dropped out of school to become the first African American woman cable car conductor in San Francisco.
In 1972, Angelou wrote and scored the Swedish-American drama, ‘Georgia, Georgia’—the first screenplay for a major film release to be ever written by a black woman. The drama was later nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Angelou went on to write for TV, theater, and films.
In 1993, she also became the first female poet and first African American poet to recite during the inauguration of a US president. The only inaugural poet before her was Robert Frost, who recited ‘The Gift Outright ‘ during JFK’s ceremony in 1961.
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Angelou received several awards and recognitions for her life’s work. These included numerous literary and humanitarian awards and over 50 honorary degrees. In 2010, she was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama. The award is recognized as the highest civilian honor in the US.
After battling against several health issues for several years, Angelou died at the age of 86 on May 28, 2014, at her home in North Carolina. She left a beautiful poetic legacy and writing—though a career that arrived later in her life—is what she is and will be remembered for in the future generations.
There are but few people who can put so much wisdom in just a few words, and Maya Angelou is one of them. A true power woman who left a significant impact in this world through her life’s stories—this is how we should know her.
What is the greatest lesson you have ever learned from Maya Angelou?