Maya Angelou Biography (2022)

Maya Angelou Biography


Lauded as a multifaceted superstar, Maya Angelou — a tall, gap-toothed, spirited individualist who is often labeled feminist writer, African-American autobiographer, historian, lecturer, journalist, activist, filmmaker, poet, singer, actor, and storyteller — fits no single designation. She set out to whip a variety of challenges, including the language barrier, and learned French, Italian, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Arabic, and Fanti, a Ghanaian dialect. Her dazzling blend of talents and energies renders her uniquely suited to a variety of self-directed projects, all of which broaden and ennoble her. Her works, translated into ten languages and hitting bestseller lists on two continents, attest to an indomitable spirit. In her words, "I will not allow anybody to minimize my life, not anybody, not a living soul — nobody, no lover, no mother, no son, no boss, no President, nobody."

Childhood and Adolescence

As she reveals in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou [mah' yuh an' jeh loh] was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. The second child and first daughter of Bailey Johnson, a brash, insouciant Navy dietician, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, a nurse by profession and gambler by trade, Angelou acquired the first half of her pen name from her brother, Bailey Junior, whose babyish babbling transformed "my sister" into "Maya." Following her parents' divorce in 1931, Maya and Bailey, labeled on their wrists with "To Whom It May Concern," were dispatched by train from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, a rural Southern backwash that contrasted deeply with the citified gaiety of Maya's birthplace.

Stamps' nurturing community spirit became Maya's surrogate family. Under the care of Momma, the children's Old South paternal grandmother, and their semi-paralyzed Uncle Willie, the children lived in the town's black quarter in the rear of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, the family-owned grocery and feed store. There they absorbed iron-clad, no-nonsense religious and moral training, punctuated by lashes with a switch from a peach tree, and reminders that the Almighty brooked no laxness and that Momma Henderson tolerated neither dirt nor backtalk. Maya's escapism from her grim, dutiful everyday life led her to classic literature, particularly white writers — Shakespeare, Kipling, Poe, Thackeray, and James Weldon Butler — and notable black authors — Paul Dunbar, Langston Hughes, W E. B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson.

Returned by her father to the Baxters' extended family in St. Louis in 1936, Maya, thoroughly indoctrinated with Momma's strictures, was reintroduced to the easy ways of the big city, where her self-absorbed mother drank and danced in gambling halls, kept company with a new man, and encouraged her babies to enjoy food, music, and other indulgences which had been in short supply in Stamps. This idyllic season in Maya's life ended abruptly after Vivian's lover, Mr. Freeman, raped Maya. To add to the emotional torture, she was forced to testify against her attacker. After her uncles murdered the rapist, the tenderhearted eight year old, refusing to speak, crept into a wounded, private world of fear and guilt.

(Video) Maya Angelou - Civil Rights Activist & Author | Mini Bio | BIO

Unsuited to the demands of an emotionally damaged child, Vivian returned Maya to Stamps, where, with Momma's guidance, she rebuilt self-esteem by cocooning herself from the outside world, reading classic literature, excelling at school, and imitating the genteel, bookish tastes of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, an old-school black Southern aristocrat who ministered to her need for pampering. Following Maya's graduation with honors from the eighth grade at Lafayette County Training School in 1940, Momma escorted her to Los Angeles, where Vivian met them and helped them move into an apartment. After Bailey joined them a month later, Momma returned to Stamps, and Maya and Bailey joined Vivian in Oakland. Later, after Vivian married Daddy Clidell Jackson, the family eventually settled in a fourteen-room house on Post Street in San Francisco's Fillmore district.

Matriculating by day at George Washington High School and in the evening at the California Labor School from 1941 to 1945, Maya, who dreamed of becoming a real estate agent, complete with briefcase (in spite of her grandmother's hopes that she would become a preacher) developed the blend of scholarship and creativity that undergirds her current success. Following a short vacation at her father's trailer in southern California and a thirty-day disappearance, she returned to her mother's care and besieged city bureaucracy for a job as San Francisco's first black streetcar conductor. Shortly after summer school graduation from Mission High, she bore a son, Clyde Bailey "Guy" Johnson, who was fathered by a neighborhood boy.

Young Womanhood

For the remainder of the 1940s, to support her child, Angelou moved about California and took a variety of jobs — dancing in night clubs, cooking at a Creole cafe, removing paint at a dent and body shop, and serving as madam and sometime prostitute at a San Diego brothel. Terrified of arrest for her illegal activities, she hastily returned to Stamps, then Louisville, where the army accepted, then ousted her because of her connection with the California Labor School, which was sponsored by the Communist Party. In the interim, she eased the pain of rejection with marijuana and a new career hoofing to "Blue Flame" and "Caravan" as one half of the exotic dance duo of "Poole and Rita."

More short-term jobs followed, including fry cook in Stockton and a second short stint in prostitution. However, when Angelou became aware of Bailey's deep despair over the death of his young wife, Eunice, she returned her attention to family matters, and, in spite of his great sorrow, Bailey, concerned for the company his sister was immersed in, forced her to give up her dissolute life. A yearning to support herself drove Angelou to sell stolen clothes for a junkie, but on his advice, she stayed free of drugs, escaped the seamy life, and again sought a legitimate job.

(Video) Maya Angelou Documentary - Biography of the life of Maya Angelou

While clerking in a record shop at the age of twenty-two, Maya met and married Tosh Angelos, a Greek-American sailor, and settled into domesticity in Los Angeles. However, beset by family and neighborhood disapproval of their mixed-race marriage, the relationship lasted only a few years, crumbling about the time of Momma's death. From 1954 to 1955, after a stint as exotic dancer at the Garden of Allah, Angelou left Guy in Vivian's care and toured Europe and Africa with a U.S. Department of State production of Porgy and Bess. Compelled by maternal unrest, she returned to California and settled in a houseboat commune in Sausalito to mother her son.


Because petty instances of neighborhood racism continued to plague her, the respite was shortlived. Within the year, with impetus from black poet John Oliver Killens, Angelou, eager to polish her writing skills, pushed on to New York and allied herself with the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 50s. Years of private music and drama training and dance classes with Martha Graham, Pearl Primus, and Ann Halprin prepared her well for a career. Searching for outlets for her talents in the 1950s, she danced and sang calypso and blues at San Francisco's Purple Onion, New York's Village Vanguard, and Chicago's Mr. Kelly's. In the 1960s, she sang at Harlem's Apollo Theatre and appeared in off-Broadway New York theatrical productions, including Heatwave and Jean Genet's The Blacks. Spurred by civil rights gains, she joined talents with comedian Godfrey Cambridge and wrote and produced Cabaret for Freedom, which epitomized a time of change when black performers and writers were receiving salaries and notoriety equivalent to their talents.

Sharing a common-law marriage with Vusumzi Make [mah' kay], a suave South African anti-apartheid leader from Johannesburg, in 1961, Angelou transported her interest and enthusiasm to a colony of black American expatriates in Egypt. As Madame Make, she lived in a milieu where her chocolate brown skin and nappy hair were accepted as "correct and normal." Although the relationship dissolved after she grew tired of her mate's patriarchal attitudes, mismanagement of money, and infidelities, she remained in Africa and for two years served as the first female editor of the Arab Observer, a Cairo news weekly. Moving on to Accra, she settled Guy into college, then remained to nurse him after an automobile accident broke his neck, an arm, and a leg. While administering the School of Music and Drama, she starred in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage at the University of Ghana. To supplement her meager salary, she also wrote for the Ghanaian Times and the African Review, a political journal.

The African phase of Angelou's life ended with a growing sense of her American-ness. About the time of her father's death, she returned to Los Angeles, where in 1970 black spokesman Bayard Rustin sought leadership initiatives from her, including a post as Northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Two presidents — Ford and Carter — appointed her to honorary positions: the Bicentennial Commission and the National Commission on the Observance of the International Women's Year. Subsequently, groups such as the Family Service Convention, Michigan State Celebrity Lecture series, Tennessee Humanities Council, Coalition of 100 Black Women, and Johns Hopkins University's Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium clamored for her rollicking, emotional speeches. Her humanistic topics, spiked with recitation and impromptu songs, tended toward a universal acceptance of human differences and a celebration of similarities. As she professed to one audience, "as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike. That was one of the greatest lessons I learned."

(Video) The Story About Maya Angelou that you have never heard in her own words.

Angelou in Print

Inspired by a meeting with novelist James Baldwin, Random House editor Robert Loomis, and cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy, Angelou broadened her considerable store of anecdotes into autobiography, a particular strength of black writers ranging from Linda Brent and Frederick Douglass to post-slavery narratives of Eldridge Cleaver, Anne Moody, Angela Davis, Claude Brown, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. She established a rigid working style: beginning with notes in longhand on yellow legal pads, she let the ideas flow. Then, supported by her Bible, dictionary, thesaurus, playing cards, ashtrays, snacks of cheese and bread, and bottles of sherry, she booked a downtown hotel room and sprawled across the bed, composing weekdays from six o'clock a.m. until noon, allowing no one to interfere. If the material flowed at a steady pace, she remained until early afternoon before returning to her residence. She continued for six months, going on several weeks' sabbatical, then returning to her hermitage until she had a manuscript ready for publication. By this process, in 1970, Angelou scored her first literary hit with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an immediate bestseller and the flagship of a multi-part autobiographical armada.

In 1973, Angelou married her third husband, Paul Du Feu, an English-born carpenter and remodeler, and settled in Sonoma, California. Immersed in projects, she composed music for the movie For the Love of Ivy, published articles, short stories, and poems for Harper's, Black Scholar Mademoiselle, Redbook, Life, Playgirl, Cosmopolitan, Ebony, and Ladies' Home Journal, continued writing autobiographies, produced original plays, lectured at state universities in Kansas and California, and served on the American Revolution Bicentennial Council. She earned an Emmy nomination for her cameo role as Kunta Kinte's grandmother in the 1977 television version of Alex Haley's Roots, adapted Sophocles's Ajax for the American stage, wrote for "Brewster Place," an Oprah Winfrey production, and composed songs for Roberta Flack. In 1981, after divorcing Du Feu, she received the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she lectures, organizes writing workshops, and continues publishing.

Again in the South

Resettlement in the South returned Angelou to home territory, where life had, at one time, seemed inequitable and discouraging to blacks. For personal reasons, she had avoided confronting Southern bigotry for twenty-two years. As she perceived the danger, "I knew that my heart would break if ever I put my foot down on that soil, moist, still, with old hurts." To questions about her choice of roosting places, she has replied that America must embrace the people it has rejected, whose contributions might have made a considerable difference in the nation's history. Content in her twelve-room house in Old Town and with the congregation of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, she has come to grips with the reality of the days of lynching, Jim Crow, Mr. Charley, and the Ku Klux Klan. In an optimistic mood, she noted in an interview with Michele Howe of the Newark Star-Ledger, "It is significant and a statement of intent to give a lifetime appointment to a black and to a woman. . . . The South has changed for both blacks and whites. People are returning to their roots or moving there for the first time, and they bring new and progressive ideas with them."

(Video) Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, BBC One Imagine (Winter 2017 )

Angelou's life revolved around her son, Guy, a California personnel analyst, her grandson, Colin Ashanti Murphy-Johnson, her close friend and colleague, Dolly McPherson, her long-time secretary, Mrs. Mildred Garris, and a close circle of friends and admirers, including authors Jessica Mitford, Shana Alexander, and Rosa Parks. A restless, mellow-voiced, dynamic beauty who often dressed in the bright colors and styles of Ghana, she made herself at home in a variety of settings, both intimate and public. To interviewer Greg Hitt of the Winston-Salem Journal, Angelou, with her usual playful humor, remarked on a future goal: "I want to know more — not intellectually — to know more so I can be a better human being, to be an honest, courageous, funny, and loving human being. That's what I want to be — and I blow it about eighty-six times a day. My hope is to cut that to seventy."

Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.


Angelou has received a gratifying share of public acclaim. She holds honorary degrees from Mills College, Smith College, Lawrence University, Oberlin College, Mt. Holyoke, Boston

College, Spelman College, Brown University, Rollins University, North Carolina School of the Arts, and, the most significant, the University of Arkansas, in the backyard of land tilled by her great-grandmother, a slave. In 1976, Ladies' Home Journal chose her Woman of the Year in Communications; in 1987, she accepted the North Carolina Award for Literature. Two years later, she was named one of USA Today's fifty black role models. She has also been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, a Golden Eagle film award, and an Emmy for acting, and has received fellowships from Yale University and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1983, she accepted the Matrix Award from Women in Communications, Inc.; in 1990, along with dancer Judith Jamison and settlement worker Mother Clara Hale, she received the Candace Award, an honor extended by the National Coalition of Black Women to ten black Americans for achievement, character, and service. In 1993, she read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the presidential inauguration ceremonies, and four years later she wrote the lyrics to the musical "King!" which was staged during that year's presidential inauguration to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

(Video) The Revelation That Changed Dr. Maya Angelou's Life | Life Stories by Goalcast

To all this praise, she has said, "I'm convinced that I'm a child of God. That's wonderful, exhilarating, liberating, full of promise. But the burden which goes along with that is, I'm convinced that everybody is a child of God. . . . I weep a lot. I thank God I laugh a lot, too. The main thing in one's own private world is to try to laugh as much as you cry." To an interviewer's question about her influence, she replied, "Each of us, famous or infamous, is a role model for somebody, and if we aren't, we should behave as though we are — cheerful, kind, loving, courteous. Because you can be sure someone is watching and taking deliberate and diligent notes."


What is Maya Angelou most famous quote? ›

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

Why was Maya Angelou mute? ›

Returning to her mother's care briefly at the age of seven, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend. He was later jailed and then killed when released from jail. Believing that her confession of the trauma had a hand in the man's death, Angelou became mute for six years.

What is the meaning of Still I Rise? ›

Still I Rise” is primarily about self-respect and confidence. In the poem, Angelou reveals how she will overcome anything through her self-esteem. She shows how nothing can get her down. She will rise to any occasion and nothing, not even her skin color, will hold her back.

Why is Maya Angelou so inspirational? ›

A poet, singer, autobiographer, and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou inspires us with both the beauty and the call to action of her words. Her most famous work is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography about her childhood. The book is a testament to the need for resilience in the face of discrimination.

What is unique about Maya Angelou? ›

She was the first Black female streetcar conductor

When Angelou was in high school, she sought out a job as a streetcar conductor. After initially being denied several times based on the color of her skin, her perseverance won in the end. She became the first Black streetcar conductor, female no less.

What is the most powerful quote? ›

21 of the World's Most Powerful Quotes Updated For Today
  1. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Gandhi. ...
  2. “Everybody is a genius. ...
  3. “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” — George Bernhard Shaw.
8 Jan 2018

What is a meaningful quote from Maya Angelou? ›

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

How does Still I Rise related to the society nowadays? ›

'Still I Rise' is her declaration that she, for one, would not allow the hatefulness of society to determine her own success. The poem, 'Still I Rise,' is not only a proclamation of her own determination to rise above society but was also a call to others to live above the society in which they were brought up.

How does the writer try to present strong emotions in Still I Rise? ›

Angelou did not have an easy life and 'Still I Rise' represents her determination to succeed and her hopeful spirit. She aims to present the feelings instilled by segregation in the poem and her determination to fight the injustice in the world.

What is the lesson of Still I Rise? ›

Still I Rise is about overcoming oppression with grace and pride, having no sympathy for the oppressors and giving to validity to the reasons for oppression.

How did Maya Angelou pronounce her name? ›

How to Pronounce Maya Angelou - YouTube

Who was Maya Angelou inspired by? ›

Maya Angelou

Why did Maya Angelou change her name? ›

In 1952, she married a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopulos. When she began her career as a nightclub singer, she took the professional name Maya Angelou, combining her childhood nickname with a form of her husband's name. Although the marriage did not last, her performing career flourished.

What life lesson can we learn from Maya Angelou? ›

Maya Angelou taught a message of being the best person you can be – that means chasing your dreams and believing in your one true vision. Do it with compassion, with kindness, and with insight. Go forth and let your solitary fantasy transform as many realities for the better.

How did Maya Angelou impact our lives? ›

She took on so many roles: she was a writer, poet, filmmaker, actor, dancer, civil rights activist, and much more. Writer: She is perhaps most famous for her best-selling, award-winning autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, about her upbringing in the South.

How Maya Angelou changed the world? ›

Never hesitant to speak her mind, Angelou passionately defended the rights of women, young people and the ignored. She effortlessly traversed the worlds of literature and activism, becoming a confidante to the original civil rights leaders, their successors and the current generation.

What makes Maya Angelou a hero? ›

Maya Angelou is a hero with many traits such as courage, perseverance, and skillful intelligence. Maya Angelou is courageous because she fell silent, but she still managed to find her voice through writing.

What style of writing did Maya Angelou use? ›

Angelou's style has many similarities in her poetry and her prose. In both, she used a direct, conversational voice, inviting readers to share in her stories and her secrets. She also employed strong and compelling metaphors and similes.

What kind of person is Maya Angelou? ›

As an ENFJ, Maya tends to be warm, genuine, and empathetic. Maya is generally persuasive and often helps guide people toward a better life.

What are 5 interesting facts about Emily Dickinson? ›

Emily Dickinson Facts
  • Her father was a United States Senator. ...
  • Only ten of her poems were published during her lifetime. ...
  • The Dickinson family were devout Calvinists. ...
  • Botany was a passion in her early years. ...
  • She was incredibly reclusive. ...
  • Several mysterious love affairs may have taken place.

What are two important works by Maya Angelou? ›

Maya Angelou: six key works
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
  • And Still I Rise (1978)
  • The Heart of a Woman (1981)
  • On the Pulse of Morning (1993)
  • A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
28 May 2014

How did Maya Angelou impact the world? ›

Civil rights activist: Angelou was active in the Civil Rights movement and served as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1959. Later, she became close with and worked with Malcolm X. Poet: She released her first collection of poems in 1971.

Who is Maya Angelou facts for kids? ›

Who is Maya Angelou? Marguerite Anne Johnson, or better known as Maya Angelou, is a renowned poet and activist. She authored seven autobiographies and other literary pieces. Aside from being skilled in writing, she was also known in the field of performing arts for her skills in dancing, singing, acting, and directing.

What were Emily Dickinson's last words? ›

Emily Dickinson: "I must go in, the fog is rising."

The renowned American poet died of Bright's disease in 1886 and in her final days, she was only able to write brief notes to her niece. Dickinson's final message contained the words, "I must go in, the fog is rising."

Did Emily Dickinson go blind? ›

Williams' therapies, is that she suffered from iritis, an inflammation of the fine muscles of the eye. For Dickinson, who feared blindness, prolongation of this illness was agonizing in ways beyond the physical.

What was strange about Emily Dickinson? ›

About Emily Dickinson

Emily was considered strange by the residents of her hometown as she took to wearing white clothing much of the time, and also for her reclusive nature. She eventually refused to come downstairs to greet her guests and sometimes would only hold conversations through the closed door of her bedroom.

What is Maya Angelou most famous text? ›

Angelou's most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), deals with her early years in Long Beach, St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas, where she lived with her brother and paternal grandmother.

What was Maya Angelou's writing style? ›

Angelou's style has many similarities in her poetry and her prose. In both, she used a direct, conversational voice, inviting readers to share in her stories and her secrets. She also employed strong and compelling metaphors and similes.

How is Maya Angelou a hero? ›

Maya Angelou was one of the world's most important writers and activists. She lived and chronicled an extraordinary life: rising from poverty, violence and racism, she became a renowned author, poet, playwright, civil rights' activist – working with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – and memoirist.

What did Maya Angelou believe in? ›

I spent some time with Zen Buddhism and Judaism and I spent some time with Islam. I am a religious person. It is my spirit, but I found that I really want to be a Christian. That is what my spirit seems to be built on.

What makes Maya Angelou a leader? ›

And it was her authenticity, along with the wisdom she shared, that made her such an endearing, powerful woman leader. She was often the voice of reason in a world that's sometimes full of unreasonableness. As leaders, we can all learn from someone who stood up for what she believed in with grace, dignity, and courage.

How did Maya Angelou contribute to the women's rights? ›

Besides writing of racial inequality, Angelou wrote many empowering poems about women and their rights; she wrote about the hypocrisy of the world, and injustice, but also about love and nature, combined with autobiographical elements – such as the poem Caged bird, in which Angelou described the difficult emotional ...

How did Maya get her name? ›

At the age of twenty-one, she married a Greek sailor, Tosh Angelos. Before they divorced in 1952, when she was singing at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco, she created her professional name by combining a variation of his surname with her brother's nickname for her, Maya.

What 6 languages did Maya Angelou speak? ›

She spoke at least six languages. Angelou toured Europe as part of the hit opera Porgy and Bess in 1954-55, and spent time living in both Egypt and Ghana during the 1960s. As a result, she could speak French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti.

Why was Maya Angelou named that? ›

In 1952, she married a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopulos. When she began her career as a nightclub singer, she took the professional name Maya Angelou, combining her childhood nickname with a form of her husband's name.


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3. The Evolution Of Maya Angelou | NowThis
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4. Maya Angelou | Biography, Books, Poems, & Facts | Black History
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