At a Glance
Maya Angelou is, true to the title of her own poem, a “Phenomenal Woman.” Few people can say they have been a novelist, professor, actress, singer, director, scholar, researcher, 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. 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.
Facts and Trivia
- 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 thirteen.
- Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Maya Angelou was the second poet to perform at a presidential inauguration; before her, he only other poet to have performed was Robert Frost, who read at Kennedy’s.
- Although Maya Angelou did not have a college education, she received over fifty honorary degrees and countless academic engagements. Her lack of a doctorate does not stop people from referring to the accomplished scholar as "Dr. Maya Angelou."
- In August 2006, Angelou received the Mother Teresa Award “for her untiring devotion and service to humanity.”
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,...
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