Poet Biographies

The Interesting Life of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a writer, poet, and activist who defied categorization. Her life was a tapestry of triumphs and struggles, woven with words that captured the essence of human experience. She was known for her empowering verse, autobiographical works, and her role in advocating for women and African American writers.

Maya Angelou Portrait

Maya Angelou was an iconic writer known for her empowering verse, autobiographical works, and her role in advocating for women and African American writers. Angelou’s poetry was written in a direct, conversational tone that resonated with people from all backgrounds. The coveted poet, novelist, playwright, actor, director, and civil rights activist had many talents and won numerous accolades. Remarkably, she even won multiple Grammy awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Maya Angelou

Life Facts

  • Maya Angelou was born on 4th April 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 2014 after a period of bad health.

Interesting Facts

  • 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 Ghanaian 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.

Famous Poems

  • Still I Riseis 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.

Early Life

Maya Angelou was born on 4th April 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 older brother, 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 her paternal 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. 

Angelou certainly had a lot of problems during her childhood. 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. After building up enough courage, 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.


Maya Angelou was an African American poet, with her ancestry and heritage running firmly throughout her writing. In 2008, Maya took a DNA test, which revealed her ancestry: 55% of her ancestors came from West Africa while 45% came from the Congo-Angola region.


During the years of World War II, Angelou attended California Labor School, after studying at George Washington High 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. Despite being clearly talented intellectually, due to her life circumstances, Angelou never attended college and instead dived straight into the world of work.

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 and made a name for herself as a cabaret dancer. She and her husband would later move to New York City where Angelou would study dancing styles from Africa, returning to San Francisco a year later. Her marriage was relatively short-lived with the couple divorcing in 1954.

The following years of the late 1950s 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 Writers 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 that brought her the recognition she had been searching for.

Writing Career and Relationships

In the later years of her life, her work in the film Georgia, Georgia, was filmed by a Swedish company, and became the first African American woman to write a screenplay. It was released in 1972. Angelou continued to work in all of her areas of interest. The writer also continued crafting articles, short stories, poetry, and autobiographical books—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.

She also had close ties to high-ranking members of government, being appointed to the Bicentennial Commission by President Gerald Ford, and later selected by President Jimmy Carter to be on the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.

It was in Winston-Salem, 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 was 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. The recording of the poem actually got nominated for the ‘Best Spoken Word Album’ at the 1993 Grammy Awards ceremony. She took home her first Grammy win that year, and secured her second in 1995 with her poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’. She was the first poet to make such an address since Robert Frost.

1993 continued to be an excellent year for Angelou, as well-respected literary critic Elsie B. Washington claimed that Maya was the “black women’s poet laureate”. This had a massive knock-on effect as the publishers of her works, Random House, saw a staggering 1200% increase in sales from the previous year. They achieved more sales just in January alone, than in all of 1992 combined. They even had to reprint over 400,000 copies of all her books just to match the incredible uptick in demand.

Angelou won many awards during her long, unique career. In 2013, she was given the Literarian Award, a National Book Award given to people who have contributed immensely to the literature. Along with this, in 2010, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

With many strings to her bow, she even had a career as an actress, performing in plays and films alike. She earned a Tony Award nomination in 1973 for her performance in the Broadway play Look Away.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw Angelou campaigning with democratic candidates such as Hilary Clinton and making her directorial debut with her first film, Down in the Delta. Maya Angelou died in May 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 into three books and she is credited in a number of plays and television shows throughout her long career.

Angelou was an inspiration and role model to those around her, not only through her accomplishments but due to her as a person. It was widely reported that she and Oprah Winfrey became very close friends and acted as her mentor at times. Oprah has publicly shown her gratitude for the positive influence she had on her.

Influence from other Poets

Maya Angelou was notably influenced by writers and activists such as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. She was also heavily inspired by older works by William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickins.

Civil Rights Movement

Famously, Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr. became very close friends. Angelous described their relationship like they were siblings. Angelou said he had a “small, beautiful speaking voice,”, which reminded her of her brother, and that when King sat down in her office, she “became a little girl again.” King Jr. ended up giving her the role of northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was Angelou’s first step towards integrating into the Martin Luther King Jr. movement in the 1960s.


What is Maya Angelou most famously known for?

Maya Angelou is most famously known for her literary work as a poet. However, she was much more than that. She was a Poet, Singer, Dancer, Actress, Director, Novelist, Civil Rights activist, and Memoirist, just to name a few of the areas she delved into. She won and was nominated for a number of accolades and awards across these areas of interest. For example, she won two Grammys, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was given the Presidential Medal for the Arts.

Why was Maya Angelou mute for five years?

Maya Angelou went through a five-year spell of silence from the age of eight due to trauma. At the age of seven, Angelou was placed into the care of her mother. Sadly, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. After speaking out about the incident, the boyfriend was jailed for a short period of a day, then released. However, upon his release, he was murdered and Angelou believed that her speaking out had led to the loss of a man’s life, developing a self-hate for her voice. This resulted in her silencing her own voice for five whole years.

What is Maya Angelou’s most famous quote?

Maya Angelou came up with many iconic and very useful quotes. However, there is one that can resonate with anyone from any walk of life. She said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

How did Maya Angelou impact the Civil Rights movement?

Maya Angelou had a role in the Civil Rights movement during the 20th century. Famously, she became a close friend of Malcolm X, working with him. She also played a vital role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1959, acting as the northern coordinator. This cemented her role in the Martin Luther King Jr. movement.

What type of poetry is Maya Angelou known for?

Maya Angelou is known for her autobiographical style of poetry in which she addresses many themes born from the struggles she herself had gone through during her life.

Where did Maya Angelou live?

Throughout her interesting life, Maya Angelou lived in a number of different places. The most notable of these were; New York, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Stamps, Arkansas.

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William Green Poetry Expert
Will created Poem Analysis back in 2015 and has a team of the best poetry experts helping him analyze poems from the past and present. Although he has a background in Automotive Engineering, having worked for McLaren testing supercars, Will has a keen eye for poetry and literature.
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