April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014
Maya Angelou is best known for her work I Know Why Caged Birds Sings (1969). She and this memoir forged a path that other African American female authors would follow. The groundbreaking work made literary history, and Angelou became the first African American woman with a non-fiction bestseller. Then, in 1971, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie. She recited her most famous work, “On the Pulse of Morning,” in 1993 at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Other than these acknowledgments, she also received two NAACP Image Awards for her outstanding literary work in non-fiction in 2005 and 2009.
But before she became this amazing pillar of literature and the arts, she was simply a young girl in Arkansas named Marguerite Annie Johnson dealing with family trauma and racial prejudice.
At a young age, Angelou’s parents split up. She and her brother, Bailey, were to be raised by their paternal grandmother. There she experienced prejudice against African Americans, especially young women. At the age of seven, Angelou was assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. In an act of retribution, her uncles killed him. Due to this trauma at such a young age, she became a near mute. But literature helped her get through this difficult time; she even wrote, “I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare” in her previously mentioned memoir.
Things started looking up for Angelou when she moved to San Francisco during World War II. She attained a scholarship at the California Labor School for acting and dance. Her studies there laid the foundation for her future career in performing arts.
In 1952, Angelou married Greek sailor Anastasios Angelopulus and changed her name. She decided to officially go by Maya, her childhood nickname, and a shortened version of his surname.
Angelou, quite the diversely talent women, started securing roles in such productions as Porgy and Bess and Calypso Heat Wave. In 1957 she released her first album, Miss Calypso. Angelou’s screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first one produced that was written by an African American woman. She also received a prestigious Tony Award nomination in 1973 for her role in Look Away.
In 1960, Angelou took her talents abroad, working as a freelance writer and editor in Egypt and Ghana. On her
return to the States, a writer friend by the name of James Baldwin pushed her to write about her life experiences and upbringing. This work subsequently became her famed memoir, I Know Why Caged Birds Sing.
As her career progressed Angelou continued to receive acclaim for her writing, directing, and ventures. She directed a film called Down in the Delta (1998), wrote essays, and even published cookbooks.
Upon Angelou’s death on May 28, 2014, President Obama spoke for the world in his released statement when he said that she was “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” He went on to note that she “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer.”
Today, on her birthday, it’s important to remember her amazingly adventurous career and thank her for the inspiring works she has contributed to history.