October 11, 2020

Who Was Maya Angelou?

Maya Angelou was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist best known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. Maya received several honours throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009. 

Early Life

Maya was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Maya had a difficult childhood. Her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their father’s mother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.

As a woman of African ancestry, Maya experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas. She also suffered at the hands of a family associate around the age of 7: During a visit with her mother, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. As vengeance for the sexual assault, Maya’s uncles killed the boyfriend. So traumatized by the experience, Maya stopped talking. She returned to Arkansas and spent years as a virtual mute.


During World War II, Maya moved to San Francisco, California. There she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School.  Also during this time, Angelou became the first Black female cable car conductor — a job she held only briefly — in San Francisco.

Maya Angelou (b. 1928), began her career as a dancer and writer. 1957 portrait dressed for her part in the Caribbean Calypso Festival.

Acting and Singing Career

In the mid-1950s, Maya’s career as a performer began to take off. She landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, later appearing in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and releasing her first album, Miss Calypso (1957). 

A member of the Harlem Writers Guild and a civil rights activist, Maya organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also serving as the SCLC’s northern coordinator. In 1961, Maya appeared in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson.

Maya went on to earn a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play Look Away (1973) and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television miniseries Roots (1977), among other honors.

Time in Africa

Maya spent much of the 1960s abroad, living first in Egypt and then in Ghana, working as an editor and a freelance writer. Maya also held a position at the University of Ghana for a time.  In Ghana, she also joined a community of “Revolutionist Returnees” exploring pan-Africanism and became close with human rights activist and Black nationalist leader Malcolm X. In 1964, upon returning to the United States, Maya helped Malcolm X set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which disbanded after his assassination the following year.

Maya Angelou Poems

‘Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie’ (1971)

Maya published several collections of poetry, but her most famous was 1971’s collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Other famous collections of Maya’s poetry include: 

  • Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), which includes Maya’s poem “Alone”
  • And Still I Rise (1978), which features the beloved poem “Phenomenal Woman”
  • Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983)
  • I Shall Not Be Moved (1990), featuring the poem “Human Family”; Apple famously used a video of Maya reading this poem in an advertisement at the 2016 Olympics
  • Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997)

‘On the Pulse of Morning’ (1993)

One of her most famous works, Maya wrote this poem especially for and recited at President Bill Clinton‘s inaugural ceremony in January 1993. The occasion marked the first inaugural recitation since 1961, when Robert Frost delivered his poem “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy‘s inauguration. 

Angelou went on to win a Grammy Award (best spoken word album) for the audio version of the poem.

Other well-known poems by Angelou include:

  • “His Day Is Done” (1962), a tribute poem Angelou wrote for Nelson Mandela as he made his secret journey from Africa to London
  • “Amazing Peace” (2005), written by Angelou for the White House tree-lighting ceremony


‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ (1969)

Friend and fellow writer James Baldwin urged Maya to write about her life experiences. The resulting work was the enormously successful 1969 memoir about her childhood and young adult years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The poignant story made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. The book, which made Maya an international star, continues to be regarded as her most popular autobiographical work. 

In 1995, Maya was lauded for remaining on The New York Times‘ paperback nonfiction bestseller list for two years—the longest-running record in the chart’s history.

‘Gather Together in My Name’ (1974)

Maya’s follow-up to A Caged Bird, this memoir covers her life as an unemployed teenage mother in California, when she turned to narcotics and prostitution.

‘Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas’ (1976)

Maya wrote this autobiography about her early career as a singer and actress.

‘The Heart of a Woman’ (1981)

Maya crafted this memoir about leaving California with her son for New York, where she took part in the civil rights movement.

‘All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes’ (1986)

A lyrical exploration about what it means to be an African American in Africa, this autobiographical book covers the years Maya spent living in Ghana.

‘Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now’ (1994)

This inspirational essay collection features Maya’s insights about spirituality and living well.

‘A Song Flung Up to Heaven’ (2002)

Another autobiographical work, A Song Flung Up to Heaven explores Maya ’s return from Africa to the U.S. and her ensuing struggle to cope with the devastating assassinations of two human rights leaders with whom she worked, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The book ends when, at the encouragement of her friend Baldwin, Angelou began work on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

‘Letter to My Daughter’ (2008)

Dedicated to the daughter Maya’s never had, this book of essays features Maya’s advice for young women about living a life of meaning.

‘Mom & Me & Mom’ (2013)

In this memoir, Maya discusses her complicated relationship with a mother who abandoned her during childhood.


Interested in health, Maya’s published cookbooks include Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes (2005) and Great Food, All Day Long (2010).

Screenplay Author and Director

After publishing Caged Bird, Maya broke new ground artistically, educationally and socially with her drama Georgia, Georgia in 1972, which made her the first African American woman to have her screenplay produced.

In 1998, seeking new creative challenges, Maya made her directorial debut with Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard.

Accomplishments and Awards

Maya’s career has seen numerous accolades, including the Chicago International Film Festival’s 1998 Audience Choice Award and a nod from the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999 for Down in the Delta

She also won two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, for her 2005 cookbook and 2008’s Letter to My Daughter.

Famous Friends

Martin Luther King Jr., a close friend of Angelou’s, was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968. Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta’s death in 2006.

Maya was also good friends with TV personality Oprah Winfrey, who organized several birthday celebrations for the award-winning author, including a week-long cruise for her 70th birthday in 1998.


In 1944, a 16-year-old Maya gave birth to a son, Guy (a short-lived high school relationship led to the pregnancy). After giving birth, she worked a number of jobs to support herself and her child. A poet himself, Angelou’s son now goes by the name Guy Johnson.

In 1952, Angelou wed Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor from whom she took her professional name — a blend of her childhood nickname, “Maya,” and a shortened version of his surname. The couple later divorced.

Notoriously secretive about her marriages, Maya was likely married at least three times, including in 1973 to a carpenter, Paul du Feu.

Maya Angelou Death

After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The news of her passing spread quickly with many people taking to social media to mourn and remember Angelou. Singer Mary J. Blige and politician Cory Booker were among those who tweeted their favorite quotes by her in tribute. 

President Barack Obama also issued a statement about Mary, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Mary “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer,” he wrote.


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