Maya Angelou was an iconic writer, known for her empowering verse, autobiographical works, and her role in advocating for women and African American writers.
About Maya Angelou
- Maya Angelou was born in January of 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri.
- Her full birth name was Marguerite Anne Johnson.
- Throughout her life, she published seven autobiographies as well as several books of poetry.
- Her first autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ was published in 1969.
- Maya Angelou died in May of 2014 after a period of bad health.
- In 1957 Maya Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso.
- She performed on stage in the early 60s.
- In the mid-60s she worked as an administrator at the University of Ghana and as a freelance writer for the Ghanian Times.
- Angelou accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina where she was one of the only full-time African American professors.
- Angelou campaigned with Democratic candidates such as Hilary Clinton in the 1990s and early 2000s.
- ‘Still I Rise‘ is a poem about confidence and empowerment. The speaker stands up to prejudice and preconceived notions of who she should be. She determines that she is valuable and deserving of respect. The refrain, “I rise” is used throughout, gaining intensity as the poem progresses. Towards the end, the speaker proudly states that she is leaving behind her own history and the “nights of terror and fear”. She is headed into the light, bringing with her the “gifts that [her] ancestors gave”.
- ‘When Great Trees Fall‘ is dedicated to loss and misery as integral parts of the human experience. Through the metaphor of a falling tree, the speaker talks about important losses that shake one’s life. In this case, the impact of the tree on the ground is felt throughout the forest. All the creatures shake and shudder. The lions “hunker down” and try to ride out the aftershocks.
Maya Angelou’s speaker makes sure to address the fact that it doesn’t matter how large one is, physically or mentally, everyone is impacted by a loss. The poem ends optimistically as the speaker refers to the passing of the worst of these emotions and the possibility of peace blooming in one’s body. It might come slowly, but it brings comfort.
- ‘Phenomenal Woman‘, like others on this list, is about empowering oneself. The speaker wants young women to go out into the world and “kick ass,” no matter who they are or what they look like. The speaker addresses the fact that she is “not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size” but society’s norms do not matter when addressing one’s worth. She can carry herself confidently, walking into a room “as cool as you please” and stand up to a man. In fact, she adds, they “swarm” around her like bees. No matter what anyone else says to her, she knows that she’s a “woman / Phenomenally”.
- ‘On Aging‘ is a short poem that is addressed to those who might feel pity for an aging speaker. She asks them not to chatter at her, as she’s listening to herself She doesn’t want their sympathy, or for people to think that she is less than who she was in the past. In fact, she tells the listener directly that she is “the same person [she] was back then, a little less hair, a little less chin”. But, she knows very well that she is “lucky” that she can still “breathe in”.
- ‘Equality‘ addresses the themes of equality and discrimination. Through the use of metaphors and the striking refrain, “equality and I will be free” Maya Angelou emphasizes a universal longing for equality. The speaker asks the listener to stop covering their ears and their eyes and see clearly that the speaker, and all those like her, have been crying, asking for change. Eventually, the repetition of the refrain takes on the rhythm of a heartbeat or drumbeat. It is pounding over and over again, driving the speaker forward as she seeks out equal freedoms.
Explore 10 of the best Maya Angelou poems.
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 brother 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 that 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.
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 Ghanian 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 that brought her the recognition she had been searching for.
Writing Career and Relationships
In the later years of her life, her work in 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 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.
Influence from other Poets
Maya Angelou was notably influenced by writers and activists such as James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston.