Hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary African American literature, Angelou is best known for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), the first of several autobiographical books. Angelou's literary works have generated critical and popular interest in part because they depict her triumph over formidable social obstacles and her struggle to achieve a sense of identity and self-acceptance. Such themes tie Angelou's writings closely to the concerns of the feminist literary movement. Angelou has also been noted for her vivid portrayals of the strong women in her life—notably Annie Henderson, the paternal grandmother who helped raise her, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a genteel black woman who helped Angelou recover her speech, and her mother, Vivian Baxter. Critics have praised Angelou's dynamic prose style, poignant humor, and illumination of African American history and consciousness through her portrayal of personal experiences. Angelou has stated, "I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human condition—about what we can endure, dream, fail at and still survive."
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Bailey, was a doorkeeper and naval dietician; her mother, Vivian, was a nurse and realtor. Angelou's family lived in Missouri, Arkansas, and California during her childhood. Angelou attended public schools and studied music, dance, and drama privately. From 1954 to 1955, she appeared in a twenty-two-nation tour of the musical Porgy and Bess that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Angelou moved to New York to pursue her acting career and performed in several off-Broadway plays including Calypso Heatwave in 1957 and The Blacks in 1960. Also in 1960, she accepted a position as an assistant administrator in the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana in Africa. Angelou taught and performed in several plays at the university before returning to the U.S. in 1966. In 1970, Angelou published her first book, the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which focuses on her struggles throughout her formative years and concludes with the birth of her son, Guy, in 1945. In addition to publishing, Angelou continued to produce, direct, and act in stage productions. In 1974 she directed the film All Day Long and, in 1988, directed the film Down in the Delta. Angelou has held teaching positions at several universities, including the University of California and the University of Kansas. She holds honorary degrees from Smith College, Mills College, Lawrence University, and Wake Forest University. Angelou also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971), a Tony Award nomination for best supporting actress in a 1977 production of Roots, and the North Carolina Award in Literature in 1992. In 1993 Angelou performed a reading of her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
After I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou published five subsequent volumes in her autobiographical series: Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung up to Heaven (2002). These works trace her psychological, spiritual, and political odyssey as she emerged from a disturbing and oppressive childhood to become a prominent figure in contemporary American literature. Angelou's quest for self-identity and emotional fulfillment resulted in a number of extraordinary experiences, among them encounters with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Angelou also describes her involvement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the United States and in Africa, her developing relationship with her son, and the hardships associated with lower-class American life. All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes is distinctive in its examination of black America's intellectual and emotional connections with post-colonial Africa. In this work, Angelou describes her four-year stay in Ghana where she worked as a freelance writer and editor. Angelou finds much to venerate about Africa, but gradually realizes that although she has cultural ties to the land of her ancestors, she is nevertheless distinctly American and in many ways isolated from traditional African society. A Song Flung up to Heaven begins in 1964 when Angelou returns from Africa to the United States. The book covers her plans to assist Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. with various civil rights activities, and her feelings of loss when both are assassinated. The narrative also recounts her experiences as a performer and writer in African American theatre, her friendships with James Baldwin and other writers, and personal anecdotes including details of a painful love affair. The story ends with Angelou putting pen to paper to begin writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou's poetry, in which she combines terse lyrics with jazz rhythms, addresses social and political issues relevant to African Americans and challenges the validity of traditional American values and myths. In "America," for example, she rejects the notion that justice is available to all Americans, citing such deep-rooted problems as racism and poverty. Angelou directed national attention to humanitarian concerns with her poem "On the Pulse of Morning." In this poem, Angelou calls for recognition of the human failings pervading American history and a renewed national commitment to unity and social improvement.
Some critics have faulted Angelou's poetry as superficial, citing its dependence on alliteration, heavy use of short lines, and conventional vocabulary. Others have praised the honest and candid nature of her poetry, lauding the strength and personal pride within her verse. Scholars have asserted that Angelou's struggle to create a sense of identity and self-acceptance in both her poetry and prose aligns her firmly within the feminist literary tradition. R. B. Stepto has noted the strong female presence in poems such as "And Still I Rise," commenting that "the 'I' of Angelou's refrain is obviously female and … a woman forthright about the sexual nuances of personal and social struggle."
Although some critics fault Angelou's autobiographies as lacking in moral complexity and universality, others praise her narrative skills and impassioned responses to the challenges in her life. Many reviewers have acknowledged The Heart of a Woman as sharply focused on women's struggles and issues, and as a self-examination of a mature writer and mother. In a review of this volume, Adam David Miller (see Further Reading) stated, "What she keeps constant throughout the book is that it is the account of a black W-O-M-A-N's life." Overall, while critical response to Angelou's autobiographies has been more favorable than reactions to her poetry, critics generally agree that her writing is an important contribution not only to the autobiography genre, but to American literature as well.