Maya Angelou was an American writer, poet, and civil rights activist. Her works, which include seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, are considered a defense of black culture. She played a role in the civil rights movement and worked with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Early Life and Education
She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in Missouri in April 1928. The name “Maya” originated from her older brother Bailey, who could not pronounce her name because of his stutter. At first, he called her “My” for “My Sister,” After reading a book about the Maya Indians, he began to call her Maya, and the name stuck. The name “Angelou” is a variation of the surname of her first husband, Tosh Angelos.
When Angelou was three years old, her parents separated, and her father sent her and her brother to Arkansas alone by train to live with their paternal grandmother, who was wealthy. Four years later, her father returned suddenly and took them back to their mother in St Louis, where Angelou was raped and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman, at the age of eight. She told her brother, who told the rest of the family. Although he was found guilty of the rape charges, he was jailed for just one day. Four days after he was released, he was murdered, and Angelou became mute for almost five years because she believed that her voice killed him.
After this incident, Angelou and her brother were taken back to their grandmother, and she attended the lafayette County Training School. At this school, Angelou was introduced to literature by famous authors like Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe. She credits her teacher Mrs. Bertha Flowers with helping her speak again, as she would tell Angelou, “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it.” At fourteen, Angelou and her brother, once again, moved in with their mother in California, where Angelou attended the California Labor School.
Three weeks after finishing high school, when she was only seventeen, Angelou gave birth to her son, Clyde. Clyde would later change his name to Guy Johnson.
Maya Angelou was many things. She was a professional dancer in clubs around San Francisco, where she danced to Calypso music. During one of her performances at the nightclub, The Purple Onion, she changed her name from Marguerite Johnson to Maya Angelou. The name set her apart, and during 1954 and 1955, she toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess.
In 199, she met the novelist John Olive Killens, who urged her to move to New York to focus on her writing career. She followed his advice and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she became acquainted with other African-0American writers like Rosa Guy and Julian Mayfield. She moved to Accra, Ghana, in 1962. After her son became injured in an automobile accident, she stayed behind for his recovery and took up work as an administrator at the University of Ghana. It was in Ghana that she met and became close friends with Malcolm X.
In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed but postponed, and he was later murdered on her 40th birthday. Following his death, she wrote, produced, and narrated Blacks, Blues, and Black! That same year, she wrote her first autobiography titled I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou also worked as a composer for Roberta Flack, the singer. She wrote numerous articles, short stories, poems, TV Scripts, autobiographies, and documentaries. In 1993, she recited her poem On The Pulse Of Morning at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
Angelou accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She taught her last course at the university in 2011, and her final speaking engagement at the university was in 2013.
Angelou was married at least two times- To Tosh Angelou in 1951 and Paul du Feu in 1974. It is unclear the number of times exactly she has been married. She had one son, Guy Johnson, one grandson, and two great-grandchildren. Her mother Vivian Baxter, died in 1991, and her brother Bailey Johnson Jr died in 2000.
Although Angelou did not earn a university degree, she preferred to be called “Dr. Angelou” by people outside her family circle and close friends. She owned two homes – one in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the other in Harlem.
Maya Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. She had reportedly been in poor health and even canceled recent scheduled appearances. During her memorial service, tributes were paid by notable artists, entertainers, and world leaders, including Barack Obama.
Awards and Honors
Maya Angelou received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry called Just Give Me A Cool Drink Of Water’ fore I Diiie and a Tony Award nomination for her role in Look Away, a 1973 play. She also received three Grammy Awards for her spoken word albums. She was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1994, the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.