Maya Angelou was a poet and writer, a fry cook, a prostitute and madame for lesbians, nightclub dancer and performer, cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa, an actress, director and producer of plays, movies, and television programs, active in the Civil Rights Movement, worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit into her eighties, published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees and in 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton. Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. She left this mortal plane with no loss of acuity and no loss in comprehension
Born St. Louis, Missouri, April 4, 1928 the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. When she was three and her brother four, their parents' "calamitous marriage" ended, and their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson.
Four years later, the children's father went to Stamps without warning and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis.
At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone." It was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.
Shortly after Freeman's murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again.
When Angelou was 14, she and her brother moved in with their mother once again, who had since moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, Angelou attended the California Labor School.
At the age of 16, she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She wanted the job badly, admiring the uniforms of the operators so much so that her mother referred to it as her "dream job." Her mother encouraged her to pursue the position, but warned her that she would need to arrive early and work harder than the men to keep her job.
At the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson).
In 1951, Angelou married Tosh Angelos, a Greek electrician, former sailor and aspiring musician, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother. She took modern dance classes during this time, formed a dance team, performed modern dance at fraternal black organisations throughout San Francisco but never became successful. Angelou, her new husband, and her son moved to New York City so she could study African dance but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
In 1954 her marriage ended and she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco where she sang and danced to calypso music. Up to that point she went by the name of "Marguerite Johnson", or "Rita", but at the strong suggestion of her managers and supporters she changed her professional name to "Maya Angelou" (her nickname and former married surname). It was a "distinctive name that set her apart and captured the feel of her calypso dance performances.
During 1954 and 1955, Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of learning the language of every country she visited, and in a few year’s she gained proficiency in several languages
In 1957, riding on the popularity of calypso, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, which was reissued as a CD in 1996. She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the 1957 film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.
In 1959 Angelou moved to New York to concentrate on her writing career and was published for the first time.
In 1960 she met and worked with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Her contributions to civil rights were successful and "eminently effective". Angelou also began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.
In 1961, Angelou performed in Jean Genet's play The Blacks, with James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett and Cicely Tyson.
Also in 1961, she met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make; they never officially married but she and her son Guy moved with Make to Cairo, where Angelou worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper The Arab Observer.
In 1962, her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Accra, Ghana so he could attend college, but he was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Angelou remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1965. She became an administrator at the University of Ghana, and was active in the African-American expatriate community. She was a feature editor for The African Review, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana, and worked and performed for Ghana's National Theatre. She performed in a revival of The Blacks in Geneva and Berlin.
In Accra, she became close friends with Malcolm X during his visit in the early 1960s. Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1965 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity; he was assassinated shortly afterward. Devastated and adrift, she joined her brother in Hawaii, where she resumed her singing career, but soon moved back to Los Angeles to focus on her writing career.
Working as a market researcher in Watts, Angelou witnessed the riots in the summer of 1965.
She acted in and wrote plays, and returned to New York in 1967 where she met her lifelong friend Rosa Guy and renewed her friendship with James Baldwin, whom she had met in Paris.
In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed, but "postpones again", and in "a macabre twist of fate", he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4). Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by her friend James Baldwin.
If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou's spirit and creative genius. Despite having almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated Blacks, Blues, Black!, a ten-part series of documentaries about the connection between blues music and black Americans' African heritage.
Also in 1968, she wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and it was published in 1969. This brought her international recognition and acclaim.
Released in 1972, Angelou's film, Georgia, Georgia, was produced by a Swedish company and filmed in Sweden. It was the first screenplay written by a black woman. She also wrote the film's soundtrack, despite having very little additional input in the filming of the movie.
Angelou married Paul du Feu in San Francisco in 1973, a Welsh carpenter and ex-husband of writer Germaine Greer. Over the next ten years, she accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime. Angelou worked as a composer, writing for singer Roberta Flack, composed movie scores, wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts, documentaries, autobiographies and poetry. She produced plays, was "a reluctant actor" and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in Look Away.
In 1977, Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. She was given a multitude of awards during this period, including over thirty honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world.
In the late 1970s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey's close friend and mentor
In 1981, Angelou and du Feu divorced and she returned to the southern United States because she felt she had to come to terms with her past there and, despite having no bachelor's degree, she accepted a lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she was one of a few full-time African-American professors. From that point on, she considered herself "a teacher who writes". Angelou taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science and theatre. Even though she made many friends on campus, "she never quite lived down all of the criticism from people who thought she was more of a celebrity than an intellect, an overpaid figurehead.
As a theatre director, in 1988 she undertook a revival of Errol John's play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the Almeida Theatre in London.
In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Her recitation resulted in more fame and recognition for her previous works, and broadened her appeal "across racial, economic, and educational boundaries". The recording of the poem won a Grammy Award.
In June 1995, she delivered her second 'public' poem, titled "A Brave and Startling Truth", which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
Angelou achieved her goal of directing a feature film in 1996, Down in the Delta, which featured actor Wesley Snipes. Also in 1996 she collaborated with R&B artists Ashford & Simpson on seven of the eleven tracks of their album Been Found. The album was responsible for three of Angelou's only Billboard chart appearances.
In 2000, she created a successful collection of products for Hallmark, including greeting cards and decorative household items. She responded to critics who charged her with being too commercial by stating that "the enterprise was perfectly in keeping with her role as 'the people's poet'". More than thirty years after Angelou began writing her life story, she completed her sixth autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven, in 2002.
Angelou campaigned for the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential primaries, giving her public support to Hillary Clinton to rally support in the Black community. Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary, finishing 29 points ahead of Clinton and taking 80% of the Black vote. When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Obama, who went on to win the presidential election and became the first African-American president of the United States. After Obama's inauguration, she stated, "We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism."
In late 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. They consisted of more than 340 boxes of documents that featured her handwritten notes on yellow legal pads for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, telegrams, fan mail and personal and professional correspondence from colleagues.
In 2013, at the age of 85, Angelou published the seventh volume of autobiography in her series, titled Mom & Me & Mom, which focuses on her relationship with her mother.
Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. Tributes to Angelou and condolences were paid by artists, entertainers, and world leaders, including Obama and Bill Clinton. The week after Angelou's death, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings rose to number 1 on Amazon.com's bestseller list.