Maya Angelou had an extraordinary and inspiring life journey. Born as Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, she overcame severe childhood trauma to become one of the most influential African American writers, poets and civil rights activists of the 20th century.
This article provides a comprehensive biography of Maya Angelou’s life and career highlights through key phases:
Her early life and traumatic childhood experiences Rise to fame as a writer and poet with publication of her first memoir Civil rights activism and friendships with iconic leaders Prolific creative works as a poet, memoirist and artist Acclaim as one of the great voices in literature
What was Maya Angelou’s childhood like?
Maya had a tumultuous childhood. When she was 3, her parents split and she and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas. At age 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After she testified against him, the man was murdered, likely by her uncles. Maya felt responsible and stopped speaking for nearly 5 years.
When and how did Maya Angelou start writing?
As a teen, Maya rediscovered her passion for language through authors like Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. She also held a variety of odd jobs which exposed her to opera, dance and African American culture in areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
At this point, she began writing calypso music and songs. Her first breakthrough into writing and performing came in 1954 when she recorded her first album.
Early Writing Career and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
In the late 1950s, Maya began pursuing writing more seriously after meeting authors like James Baldwin and Jules Feiffer. In 1959, she wrote her first piece which detailed her experiences during a trip to Ghana to mark the formation of the African republic.
Her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, launched Maya Angelou to fame and critical acclaim. Published in 1969, it recounted her early life struggles through age 16, including the trauma of her rape.
The book was an instant success, selling over 1 million copies despite attempts to ban it in some areas for its graphic content. With this memoir, Maya helped open up dialogue about sexual abuse and racism.
Why was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings so significant?
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was groundbreaking as one of the first mainstream memoirs detailing the life of a young African American girl. It confronted racial discrimination and trauma with an intimate style that resonated widely. It brought Maya Angelou mainstream success and acclaim and opened doors for her prolific career as a storyteller, writer and civil rights champion.
Book sales and accolades for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
|Nominated for National Book Award
|~1 million copies sold
|Entered the cultural canon as assigned classroom reading
|Over 7 million copies sold worldwide
Civil Rights Work with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X
Driven to make change after the assassinations of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, Maya Angelou became a key worker and organizer within the civil rights movement. From 1960-1961, she served as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr. to fundraise and organize protests.
During this period, she also developed a deep friendship with Malcolm X after hearing him speak. Though their outlooks differed, they shared a commitment to advancing equal rights. Angelou would later assist in the founding of the Organization of African Unity, an international NGO mirroring Malcolm X’s ideas of pan-Africanism. Angelou remained dedicated to advancing civil rights until King’s assassination in 1968.
What was Angelou’s relationship like with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X?
Maya Angelou became close friends with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the civil rights movement, though the latter’s assassination severely affected her. Despite their different philosophies, Angelou aligned herself with both men’s missions to advance Black rights and equality. After their murders, she temporarily withdrew from activism out of grief and despair over violence against Black leaders.
Prolific Creative Works
After stepping back from activism, Maya Angelou unleashed her creativity, publishing over a dozen acclaimed works spanning poetry, memoir, and fiction. These include:
- Gather Together in My Name (1974)
- Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976)
- The Heart of a Woman (1981)
- All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
- Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971)
- And Still I Rise (1978)
- Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983)
- I Shall Not Be Moved (1990)
- The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994)
- Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (1993)
- My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994)
Maya Angelou also remained dedicated to film and television, appearing in iconic programs like the landmark mini-series Roots (1977). In 1998, she made history by directing Down in the Delta, becoming the first Black woman to direct a major motion picture.
Breakdown of Maya Angelou’s major works through the decades:
|Memoir, poetry, film
|I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
|Gather Together in My Name, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie
|The Heart of a Woman, Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?
|Poetry, children’s books
|I Shall Not Be Moved, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me
|Poetry, film direction
|A Brave and Startling Truth, Down in the Delta
Being a Multi-dimensional Woman and Artist
In addition to being a gifted writer and storyteller, Maya Angelou was a Tony-nominated stage actress, calypso singer-dancer, seasoned cook, committed civil servant, and Reynolds professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
Despite fame and recognition, Angelou faced criticism from figures like scholar Harold Bloom who called her work “minor” and “thin.” Yet the sheer volume and diversity of her creative works undeniably shaped literature and left a profound cultural impact.
What roles did Maya Angelou hold beyond writing?
Beyond a lauded writer and poet, Maya Angelou was an actress, director, professor, calypso performer, activist, and editor. After spending years abroad, she also became fluent in multiple languages. Her multi-dimensional talents influenced both the arts and human rights realms. Even in her final years, she continued taking on new creative challenges like graphic novel writing and branded product lines with Hallmark.
Late Life and Death
In her final years, Angelou experienced health issues but remained vibrant and productive. She continued writing essays and poetry while maintaining an active speaking schedule. Awards and accolades also continued pouring in, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
On May 28, 2014, Maya Angelou passed away at age 86 in her North Carolina home. Leaving behind an unmatched creative legacy, her lasting impact continues inspiring new generations of writers and activists committed to justice and humanity.
”My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” – Maya Angelou
When and how did Maya Angelou die?
After experiencing ongoing health issues, Maya Angelou died at the age of 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on May 28, 2014. She remained vibrant and dedicated to her creative pursuits up until her passing, leaving behind a prolific body of work along with a legacy as one of history’s most iconic voices. She is survived by her son Guy Johnson.
The incredible Maya Angelou lived her life with passion, compassion, wisdom and persistence in spite of trauma and injustice. Her talents spanned from poetry to dance to revelatory memoirs reflecting on identity, racism, family and overcoming adversity. Even in her final years, she continued to create fearlessly while advocating for justice and human dignity.
Maya Angelou’s works will undoubtedly be studied for generations as the writing provides deep cultural insights and continues resonating with readers through stunning lyricism. Her friend Coretta Scott King summed up her meaningful impact shortly after her death: “The world has lost one of its most radiant voices in the literary arts.” Angelou’s legacy indeed lives on brightly through her words and outstanding contributions as an artist and agent of change.
Frequently Asked Questions about Maya Angelou’s Life and Work
What is Maya Angelou best known for?
Maya Angelou was best known for her series of seven autobiographies, including her first and most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. These memoirs chronicled her childhood and early adult experiences as a African American woman with a particular focus on themes like identity, family, travel, racism and personal struggle.
What did Maya Angelou accomplish as a civil rights activist?
Maya Angelou worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the 1960s civil rights movement. She also helped organize Cabaret for Freedom as a fundraising event for the SCLC, and assisted Black leaders like Malcolm X in forming organizations focused on African liberation.
How has Maya Angelou’s work influenced popular culture?
Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, poems and essays have significantly impacted popular culture. Her works have been referenced in songs, films, and TV shows over the years. In 2011, the U.S. State Department even launched a program called “American Corner” in her name to provide information about American society to immigrant populations.
Did Maya Angelou win any major awards or honors before her death?
Yes, Maya Angelou received over 50 honorary degrees and many honors like the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She earned multiple GRAMMY nominations for her spoken word albums and a Tony nomination for her acting. In 2000, Arkansas inducted her into their hall of fame.