Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Best known for her poetry and autobiographical works, Angelou has had a multifaceted career, enjoying success as a dancer, actress, and teacher.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928 to Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson. Following her parents’ divorce, Angelou and her brother were sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, a poor rural section of Arkansas. Angelou’s grandmother, whom she called “Momma,” was the stable force in Angelou’s early life. Annie Henderson was a strong, religious woman who made sure that the family went to church regularly. Religion and spiritual music were important factors in the Johnson family life. Angelou also enjoyed a close relationship with her brother Bailey, who gave her the name “Maya.” Angelou and her brother lived with their grandmother and Uncle Willie in the rear of the Johnson store, which Annie Henderson had owned for twenty-five years. Because the store was the center of activity for the black community, Angelou saw at first hand the indignities that black residents suffered as a result of the prejudices of the white community in Stamps.
Angelou was a victim of violence at an early age. During one of her visits to her mother in St. Louis, Angelou was raped by a friend of her mother. When her mother’s brothers found out about the rape, they killed the man responsible. Believing that she had caused the man’s death by speaking his name, Angelou refused to speak for five years following these traumatic events. With the encouragement of Mrs. Flowers, an educated black woman from Stamps, Angelou regained her speech. Under Mrs. Flowers’ further guidance, Angelou began to read the works of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
After graduating at the top of her eighth grade class in Stamps, Angelou and her brother continued their education in California. While still in high school, she worked as the first black woman streetcar conductor in San Francisco. At the age of sixteen and unmarried, she gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson. To support herself and Guy, she took jobs as a waitress, cook, and nightclub singer. In 1950, she married Tosh Angelos, a former sailor of Greek ancestry, but they were divorced after a few years. (Angelou’s surname was derived from that of her former husband.)
Angelou continued her early interest in music and dance by studying with Martha Graham. She went on to tour twenty-two countries during 1954 and 1955 as the premier dancer in Porgy and Bess. Her travels with the cast took her to Italy, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Egypt. During the late 1950’s, Angelou and Guy lived in a houseboat commune in California, where they went barefoot, wore jeans, and let their hair grow long. These experiences brought Angelou into contact with a variety of people from different countries and of different races.
As Angelou became interested in a writing career, she moved to New York in 1958 and joined the Harlem Writers Guild. In addition to working on her writing, she starred in the New York production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks (1960) with Godfrey Cambridge and collaborated with Cambridge to produce, direct, and star in Cabaret for Freedom (1960).
In 1960, Angelou and Guy moved to Cairo, Egypt, with a South African freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make. In Egypt, she served as an editor for Arab Observer, an English-language newspaper. Two years later, she and Guy moved to the West African nation of Ghana, where she worked for three years as a writer, as an assistant administrator for the University of Ghana, and as a feature editor for African Review.
In the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Maya Angelou shares her experience of growing up as a poor black female in the segregated rural South. Throughout her career she has continued to draw on her own experiences as the subject matter for her work. She has published four more volumes of her personal narrative showing how she was able to overcome obstacles posed by her race and gender to achieve success in many areas. In Gather Together in My Name (1974), Angelou writes about a difficult period in her life, a time when she was forced to work at menial jobs to support herself and her son. In Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), Angelou describes her life as a dancer and actress, including...
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IntroductionMaya Angelou is, true to the title of her own poem, a “Phenomenal Woman.” Few people can say they have been a novelist, actress, singer, director, poet, and brothel madam, yet Angelou has filled all of these roles and many more. She was an integral part of the civil rights movement, working closely with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. And as a survivor of poverty, familial discord, and a harrowing childhood, Angelou was able to turn her remarkable, tumultuous life into creative inspiration, particularly in the autobiographical work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which launched her career. Today, she is celebrated as one of the most notable African-American women of the twentieth century, yet her accomplishments cross lines of race, gender, sexuality, and culture.
- Though heralded for her writing, Angelou is no stranger to acting. She received a Tony nomination for her role in Look Away and an Emmy nomination for her performance in the landmark miniseries Roots.
- Following sexual abuse and murder in her family, Angelou was electively mute for several years of her childhood. She began speaking again at the age of 13.
- Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. The only other poet to have performed at a presidential inauguration was Robert Frost, who read at Kennedy’s.
- Despite numerous honorary degrees and academic engagements, Maya Angelou does not have a college education.
- In August 2006, Angelou received the Mother Teresa Award “for her untiring devotion and service to humanity.”
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Maya Angelou’s many achievements in diverse fields testify to the breadth of her talent, the strength of her character, and the power of her vision. As an actress, singer, activist, playwright, poet, and, especially, a compelling autobiographer, she has succeeded in communicating her remarkable experiences and perspective to an appreciative and ever-growing audience. Now in speeches and in interviews, Angelou criticizes the class system that keeps its heel on the poor, and she exhorts people to action, both for themselves and for others. The bird, finally out of its cage, swoops toward those still caged with cries of protest and relentless pecking at the gates of oppression.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Maya Angelou was born (as Marguerite Johnson) in St. Louis, Missouri, and spent time as a young girl in Arkansas (in Stamps, near Hope, where Clinton grew up) and California. She was raped at the age of eight by her mother’s boyfriend (a story that is retold in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), had a son by the time she was sixteen, and worked at a number of jobs before she became an artist. In her early career, she was a singer and actress, appearing in plays and musicals around the world through the 1950’s and 1960’s. She has since directed plays and films, recorded music and spoken word, and appeared on television as both a narrator and a series host. She has also taught at various American universities since the...
(The entire section is 169 words.)
Before her first autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published, Maya Angelou had a richly varied, difficult life. Her work has made her one of the most important African American female voices in the twentieth century. All of her writing is steeped in recollection of African American slavery and oppression. It also includes frank discussion of the physical and psychological pain of child abuse, the sexual anxieties of adolescence, unmarried motherhood, drug abuse, unhappy marriage, and divorce.
In Gather Together in My Name, Angelou struggles as a single mother to raise her son, while earning a living as Creole cook, army enlistee, madam, and prostitute. In Singin’ and...
(The entire section is 269 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, re-christened Maya, and taking the professional name Angelou (an adaptation of the name of her first husband, Tosh Angelos), Maya Angelou studied music and dance with Martha Graham, Pearl Primus, and Ann Halprin. Her early career was as an actress and singer, to which she quickly added the roles of civil rights worker (as the northern coordinator for the SCLC, 1959-1960), editor (as associate editor for the Arab Observer, 1961-1962), educator (beginning with the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies, 1963-1966), and finally writer—first as a reporter for the Ghanaian Times (1963-1965). During the late 1960’s and 1970’s, she taught...
(The entire section is 610 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Maya Angelou (AN-juh-lew) is a modern-day Renaissance woman. As a writer, she is best known for her autobiographies, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and for her collections of poetry, but she also has gained prominence through her playwriting, directing, acting, dancing, and involvement in civil rights movements. She was born Marguerite Johnson, in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Upon the breakup of her parents’ marriage, she was sent by her mother to Stamps, Arkansas, where she lived with her paternal grandmother, Ann Henderson. These years are chronicled in the first volume of Angelou’s autobiography, and they include both typical and atypical experiences of growing up, from the time that Angelou imposed...
(The entire section is 709 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou is the daughter of Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson. When her parents’ marriage ended in divorce, she was sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. Maya was three years old, and she was joined by her brother Bailey, who gave her the name Maya.
Angelou graduated with top honors from the Lafayette County Training School in 1940 and was sent to the San Francisco Bay Area, where her mother had moved. Continuing her education at George Washington High School, she also attended evening classes at the California Labor School,...
(The entire section is 784 words.)