Maya Angelou: Beloved American Author and Activist (2024)

1928-2014

Jump to:

  • Who Was Maya Angelou?
  • Quick Facts
  • Early Life
  • Life as an Performer and Activist
  • Poems
  • Books
  • Movie Career
  • Son and Husbands
  • Death
  • Legacy: Maya Angelou Quarter and More
  • Quotes

Who Was Maya Angelou?

A multitalented writer and performer, Maya Angelou is best known for her work as an author and poet. Her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by a Black woman. Some of her famous poems include “Phenomenal Woman,” “Still I Rise,” and “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she recited at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 and which earned her a Grammy Award. Angelou also enjoyed a career as a Tony- and Emmy-nominated actor and singer in plays, musicals, and onscreen. She became the first Black woman to have a screenplay produced with the 1972 movie Georgia, Georgia. In her work as a civil rights activist, she collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, among others. The Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient died in May 2014 at age 86.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Marguerite Ann Johnson
BORN: April 4, 1928
DIED: May 28, 2014
BIRTHPLACE: St. Louis, Missouri
SPOUSES: Tosh Angelos (c. 1949-1952), Vusumzi Make (c. 1961), and Paul Du Feu (c. 1973-1981)
CHILD: Guy Johnson
ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Aries

Early Life

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis.

She had a difficult childhood. Her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas. Bailey gave Marguerite the nickname “Maya,” which she would adopt as her preferred name later in life.

As an African American, Angelou experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas. She also suffered violence at home when she was around the age of 7. During a visit with her mother, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. As vengeance for the sexual assault, her uncles killed the boyfriend.

Young Maya was so traumatized by the experience that she stopped talking. She returned to Arkansas and spent about five years as a virtual mute.

A short-lived high school relationship resulted in Maya becoming pregnant. She was 16 years old whens he delivered her son, Guy Johnson, in 1944. After giving birth, she worked a number of jobs to support herself and her child.

Around this time, Maya moved to San Francisco and won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School. She also became the first Black female cable car conductor, a job she held only briefly, in San Francisco.

Life as an Performer and Activist

Maya Angelou: Beloved American Author and Activist (1)

Maya Angelou was nominated for an Emmy Award for her performance in the TV miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel.

In the mid-1950s, the world began to know Maya Angelou, her professional name adapted from her first husband’s last name, when her career as an actor and singer took off. She landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, later appearing in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and releasing her first album, Miss Calypso (1957).

A member of the Harlem Writers Guild and a civil rights activist, Angelou organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Martin Luther King Jr. helped found before becoming its first president. Angelou also served as the SCLC’s northern coordinator and became a close to King.

In 1961, Angelou appeared in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr., and Cicely Tyson. Afterward, the performer retreated from the theater scene for much of the 1960s. She lived abroad, first in Egypt and then in Ghana, and worked as an editor and a freelance writer. Angelou also held a position at the University of Ghana for a time.

In Ghana, she also joined a community of “Revolutionist Returnees” exploring pan-Africanism and became close with activist and Black nationalist leader Malcolm X. In 1964, upon returning to the United States, Angelou helped Malcolm X set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which disbanded after his assassination the following year.

Back in the United States, Angelou earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play Look Away (1973) and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television miniseries Roots (1977), among other honors.

Poems

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie

Angelou published several collections of poetry, but her most famous was 1971’s collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Other famous collections of Angelou’s poetry include:

Apple famously used a video of Angelou reading her poem “Human Family” in an advertisem*nt at the 2016 Olympics.

“On the Pulse of Morning”

Maya Angelou: Beloved American Author and Activist (2)

Maya Angelou reads “On the Pulse of Morning” at the 1993 inauguration ceremony for President Bill Clinton.

One of her most famous works, Angelou wrote the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ceremony in January 1993. Her recitation at the ceremony marked the first inaugural poem reading since 1961, when Robert Frost delivered “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Angelou went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for the audio version of “On the Pulse of Morning.”

Other well-known poems by Angelou include “His Day Is Done,” a 1962 tribute poem Angelou wrote for Nelson Mandela as he made his secret journey from Africa to London, and “Amazing Peace,” which she wrote in 2005 for the White House tree-lighting ceremony.

Books

In addition to her books of poetry, Angelou also wrote several memoirs and even cookbooks. She won two NAACP Image Awards in the Outstanding Literary Work (Nonfiction) category for her 2005 cookbook and 2008’s Letter to My Daughter.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Angelou’s friend and fellow writer James Baldwin urged her to write about her life experiences. The resulting work was the enormously successful 1969 memoir about her childhood and young adult years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The poignant story made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by a Black woman. The book, which made Angelou an international star, continues to be regarded as her most popular autobiographical work.

In 1995, Angelou was lauded for remaining on The New York Times’ paperback nonfiction bestseller list for two years, the longest-running record in the chart’s history at the time.

Gather Together in My Name

Angelou’s follow-up to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this 1974 memoir covers her life as an unemployed teenage mother in California, when she turned to narcotics and prostitution.

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas

Angelou wrote this autobiography, published in 1976, about her early career as a singer and actor.

The Heart of a Woman

Angelou crafted this 1981 memoir about leaving California with her son for New York, where she took part in the Civil Rights Movement.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

A lyrical exploration about what it means to be an African American in Africa, this autobiographical book was published in 1986 and covers the years Angelou spent living in Ghana.

Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

This inspirational essay collection from 1994 features Angelou’s insights about spirituality and living well.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven

Another autobiographical work, A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) explores Angelou’s return from Africa to the United States and her ensuing struggle to cope with the devastating assassinations of two human rights leaders with whom she worked: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

King was killed on Angelou’s 40th birthday, leading the author to stop celebrating her birthday for years afterward. She also sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta’s death in 2006.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven ends as Angelou begins work on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Letter to My Daughter

Dedicated to a daughter Angelou never had, this 2008 book of essays features Angelou’s advice for young women about living a life of meaning.

Mom & Me & Mom

In this 2013 memoir, Angelou discusses her complicated relationship with her mother who abandoned her during childhood.

Cookbooks

Interested in health, Angelou’s published cookbooks include Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes (2005) and Great Food, All Day Long (2010).

Movie Career

After publishing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou broke new ground artistically, educationally, and socially by writing the movie Georgia, Georgia (1972). The drama made her the first African American woman to have a screenplay produced.

In 1998, seeking new creative challenges, Angelou made her directorial debut with Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard. Her work on the film was recognized with the Chicago International Film Festival’s 1998 Audience Choice Award and a nod from the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999.

Beginning in 1982, Angelou also returned to teaching at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Over the years, she led a number of humanities courses, including “Race, Politics and Literature,” “African Culture and Impact on U.S.,” and “Race in the Southern Experience.” In 2011, Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Son and Husbands

Maya Angelou: Beloved American Author and Activist (3)

Maya Angelou speaks with her son, Guy Johnson, in 2005.

In 1944, Angelou gave birth to her son, Clyde Johnson, when she was 16 years old. Johnson followed in his mother’s footsteps to eventually become a poet known as Guy Johnson. He died in February 2022.

Angelou was often tight-lipped about her personal life, and details of her marriages and relationships have been inconsistent—even based on her own accounts. She is believed to have been married at least three times.

According to the National Women’s History Museum, Angelou wed Tosh Angelos, an electrician in the U.S. Navy, in 1949. She adopted a version of his surname and kept it through the rest of her life, despite the couple’s divorce in 1952.

In late 1960, Angelou met Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter. The couple married in 1961, according to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. They moved to Cairo with her son in 1962, but the marriage dissolved soon after.

Then in 1973, Angelou married carpenter Paul du Feu and lived with him in Berkeley, California, until their divorce in 1981.

Death

After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86 years old. A specific cause of death wasn’t given, but Angelou’s literary agent, Helen Brann, said that she had been “frail” and suffering from heart problems.

The news of her passing spread quickly with many people taking to social media to mourn and remember Angelou. Singer Mary J. Blige and politician Cory Booker were among those who tweeted their favorite quotes by her in tribute.

Then-President Barack Obama also issued a statement about Angelou, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Angelou “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer,” he wrote.

A memorial service for Angelou was held on June 7, 2014, at Wake Forest University, where she taught for about three decades. Among the attendees were her close friend Oprah Winfrey, former President Bill Clinton, then-First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Cicely Tyson. BeBe Winans and Lee Ann Womack gave musical performances.

Legacy: Maya Angelou Quarter and More

In November 2020, the San Francisco Arts Commission unanimously approved the recommendation for a sculpture honoring Angelou “in recognition of her many accomplishments, including breaking the color and gender barriers by becoming San Francisco’s first African-American female streetcar conductor, an award-winning author and poet, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and a civil rights leader.”

The monument is in development by artist Lava Thomas and scheduled to be installed in fall 2024 outside the main branch of the San Francisco Library. The design is a book featuring Angelou’s likeness on one side and the title of her famous poem “Still I Rise” at the base.

Maya Angelou: Beloved American Author and Activist (4)

An image of the Maya Angelou quarter, which was first distributed in 2022 as part of the American Women Quarters Program

Meanwhile, Angelou has become one of the historical figures featured on U.S. money. It was announced in May 2021 that she would be one of the first women commemorated with a new series of quarters from the U.S. Mint. The first shipments of the coin were made in January 2022.

The obverse, or heads, side of the coin depicts former President George Washington, with the reverse side showing Angelou with her arms uplifted. The bird in flight and rising sun behind her likeness are images inspired by her poetry and symbolic of the way she lived, according to the U.S. Mint.

The American Women Quarters Program has honored nine other women from 2022 through 2023, including astronaut Sally Ride, former Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and aviator Bessie Coleman. It is scheduled to continue through 2025.

Quotes

  • Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage, you cannot practice any of the other virtues consistently.
  • I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.
  • The caged bird sings with a fearful trill / of things unknown but longed for still / and his tune is heard on the distant hill / for the caged birds sings of freedom.
  • If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
  • We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.
  • I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
  • Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.
  • How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!
  • To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents.
  • We are only as blind as we want to be.
  • The intensity with which young people live demands that they “black out” as often as possible.
  • Home is a refuge, not only from my worries, my terrible concerns. I like beautiful things around me. I like to be beautiful because it delights my eyes and my soul is lifted up.
  • You may not control the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
  • When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.
  • Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.
  • If you get, give. If you learn, teach.
  • In the flush of love’s light, we dare to be brave, and suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be. Yet, it is only love which sets us free.
  • I believe that each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory.
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Maya Angelou: Beloved American Author and Activist (5)

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Maya Angelou: Beloved American Author and Activist (2024)

FAQs

What is the summary of Maya Angelou? ›

Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and actress whose several volumes of autobiography explore the themes of economic, racial, and sexual oppression.

What is Maya Angelou's poetry mainly about? ›

General themes. Angelou explores many of the same themes throughout all her writings, in both her autobiographies and poetry. These themes include love, painful loss, music, discrimination and racism, and struggle. According to DeGout, Angelou's poetry cannot easily be placed in categories of themes or techniques.

Why is Maya Angelou considered an important author? ›

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.

Why was Maya Angelou mute for 5 years? ›

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 point of Angelou's story? ›

The main idea is to show the experience of being an African American woman. Maya Angelou reveals her struggles, everything from racism to assault, to show she overcame and became wiser and more self-assured.

What is the most important thing about Maya Angelou? ›

Angelou had a broad career as a singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood's first female black director, but became most famous as a writer, editor, essayist, playwright, and poet. As a civil rights activist, Angelou worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

What did Maya Angelou fight for? ›

She was hailed as an internationally regarded figure for her role as a civil rights leader who fought for social and racial justice. Angelou resided in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for over thirty years.

What impact did Maya Angelou have on society? ›

In the 1960s, Angelou began to focus on her writing and, in 1970 her first autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, became a best seller and was nominated for a National Book Award. Angelou's writings have altered society for the better, bringing greater diversity into the theater and literature.

What did Maya Angelou do with MLK? ›

King subsequently invited Angelou to take on the role of Northern Coordinator for the SCLC, and she was instrumental in fundraising and promoting the organisation's mission. The clip is taken from the imagine... documentary celebrating the life of Maya Angelou.

Who inspired Maya Angelou to write? ›

Later in her high school years, Maya was inspired by her teacher, Bertha Flowers, to dive into literature, which would changed her life.

What did Maya Angelou stand for? ›

With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life. She was respected as a spokesperson for Black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of Black culture.

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 if Maya Angelou died when she was 20? ›

If Maya Angelou died when she was 20, she would've died a prostitute & single mom. If Malcolm X died when he was 20, he would've died as Detroit Red, a thief, a woman beater & drug addict. People's mistakes often lead to their great destiny.

Did Maya Angelou ever talk again? ›

At age 13, Maya Angelou gradually began speaking again, by reading poetry aloud, initiating her road to recovery. The experience and wisdom of that exceptional teacher, Mrs Bertha Flowers, made a profound impact on the life of Maya Angelou.

How old was Dr. Maya when she got pregnant? ›

When she was just 16 years old, Maya Angelou got pregnant with her son, Guy Johnson. At a time when teen mothers were often shamed and/or pushed into marrying the baby's father, the now-literary icon and renowned poet had a support system many other teen moms lacked. Dr.

What is a interesting story about Maya Angelou? ›

As an African American, Angelou experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas. She also suffered violence at home when she was around the age of 7. During a visit with her mother, Maya was raped by her mother's boyfriend. As vengeance for the sexual assault, her uncles killed the boyfriend.

What are three important events about Maya Angelou? ›

Maya Angelou Timeline
YearEvent
2010Maya Angelou is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
2013Maya Angelou publishes her eighth autobiography “Mom & Me & Mom.”
2014Maya Angelou passes away at the age of 86.
2021Maya Angelou becomes the first Black woman to be depicted on a quarter.
34 more rows

What is the summary of the lesson by Maya Angelou? ›

The poem “The Lesson” written by Maya Angelou is about the trials of life and death. In the poem Maya demonstrates that life needs to be embraced, even at its worst moments. Maya….. The poem is about the hardships and the bitter sweet feelings of dealing with life and death.

What is Maya Angelou most passionate about? ›

She recognized the power of words and because of her passion for language, her work stood out as a bright light as she used the power of literature to be an outlet for pain. Instead of letting trauma and pain consume her, Angelou overcame it and went on to live an incredible life.

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