Maya Angelou was born in January of 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her full birth name was Marguerite Anne Johnson and her parents were Bailey Johnson, a dietician for the navy, and Vivian Johnson, a nurse. The name she would come to use, “Maya” came from her bother, Bailey Jr. It is a slurred combination of “my-a” and “sister.”
When Angelou was still very young her parent’s marriage fell apart. They had never been happy together and when they separated the young girl and her bother were sent, alone, by train, to live in Stamps, Arkansas with a grandmother. Angelou’s grandmother had managed to make a good life for herself due to her ownership of a general store which prospered during the Great Depression. When Angelou was eight years old her father brought the children back to live with their mother. It was here that she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Angelou revealed what had been done to her, and he was jailed, but for only one day.
As soon as Angelou’s abuser was released he was murdered, likely by someone in the family. These traumatic events which occurred when she was still quite young, resulted in her becoming mute for five years. She would later explain that she blamed herself, and her voice, for the murder of her abuser. It is now thought that this time period was when she developed a true love for reading.
During the years of World War II, Angelou attended California Labor School and when she was 16 she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. Angelou gave birth to her first child, Clyde, one year later.
Dance, Plays, and Early Literary Career
In the early 1950s Angelou married Tosh Angelos who was an electrician and aspiring musician. It was also during this time period that she began taking dance classes. She performed at a number of different venues throughout San Francisco. She and her husband would later move to New York, returning to San Francisco a year later. Her marriage was relatively short-lived with the couple divorcing in 1954.
The following years saw Angelou touring throughout Europe with a production of an opera titled, Porgy and Bess. In 1957 she recorded her first album, Miss Calypso. The end of the decade saw her return to New York to focus on her writing career. While there she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild and was published for the first time. She would go on to meet Martin Luther King Jr. and organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
While she was spending more time on her writing, Angelou was still dancing. She performed on stage in the early 60s and then moved to Cairo where she worked as an associate editor of The Arab Observer. In the mid 60s she worked as an administrator at the University of Ghana and as a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times. She returned to America in 1967 and spent time writing plays. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became one of her most popular works, was published in 1969. It was the piece which brought her the recognition she had been searching for.
In the later years of her life, her work Georgia, Georgia, was filmed by a Swedish company and became the first screenplay ever written by a black woman. It was released in 1972. Angelou continued to work in all of her areas of interest. She performed in Look Away, and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973. The writer also continued crafting on articles, short stories, poetry and autobiographies—the second of which was published in 1974 and was titled, Gather Together in My Name. She also appeared in the television program, Roots. Angelou’s second marriage, to Paul du Feu, ended in 1983, a few years after she returned to the southern United States.
It was in North Carolina, at Wake Forest University, that she accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She was one of the only full-time African-American professors on staff at the university. At this point in her life, Angelou finally and fully recognized as an outstanding writer, in all mediums. She toured around the United States giving lectures from the 1990s until she was in her eighties. One event of note in her later life was the 1993 recitation of, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She was the first poet to make such an address since Robert Frost.
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw Angelou campaigning with democratic candidates such as Hilary Clinton and directing her first film, Down in the Delta. Maya Angelou died in May of 2014 after a period of bad health. Throughout her life she published seven autobiographies as well as several books of poetry. Her essays were compiled in three books and she is credited in a number of plays and television shows throughout her long career.