Today is the 94th birthday of the poet 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. Angelou received several honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Maya Angelou
AKA: Marguerite Johnson
DATE OF BIRTH: 4-Apr-1928
PLACE OF BIRTH: St. Louis, MO
DATE OF DEATH: 28-May-2014
PLACE OF DEATH: Winston-Salem, NC
CAUSE OF DEATH: unspecified
FATHER: Bailey Johnson (naval dietician)
MOTHER: Vivian Baxter
BROTHER: Bailey, Jr.
SON: Claude Johnson (“Guy”, b. 1945 out of wedlock, see Caged Bird Sings)
HUSBAND: Tosh Angelos (sailor, married five years, div. 1952)
HUSBAND: Paul Du Feu (m. 1973, div. 1981)
HUSBAND: Vusumzi Make (div. 1963)
Academy of Achievement (1990)
National Medal of Arts 2000
National Women’s Hall of Fame
Spingarn Medal 1994
St. Louis Walk of Fame
Order of the Long Leaf Pine
Presidential Medal of Freedom 2010
BEST KNOWN FOR: Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist, poet and award-winning author known for her acclaimed 1969 memoir, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ and her numerous poetry and essay collections.
Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou 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 an African American, Angelou 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, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. As vengeance for the sexual assault, Angelou’s uncles killed the boyfriend.
So traumatized by the experience, Angelou stopped talking. She returned to Arkansas and spent years as a virtual mute.
During World War II, Angelou 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.
In the mid-1950s, Angelou’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, Angelou 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, Angelou appeared in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson.
Angelou 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.
Angelou spent much of the 1960s abroad, living first in Egypt and then in Ghana, working as an editor and a freelance writer. Angelou 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, Angelou helped Malcolm X set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which disbanded after his assassination the following year.
One of her most famous works, Angelou 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.
Angelou’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.
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.
Angelou 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 Angelou 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, Angelou was likely married at least three times, including in 1973 to a carpenter, Paul du Feu.
After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Angelou 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 Angelou, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Angelou “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer,” he wrote.
FILMOGRAPHY AS DIRECTOR
Down in the Delta (5-Aug-1998)
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Under African Skies (22-Jan-2012) as Herself
Good Hair (18-Jan-2009) as Herself
As Seen Through These Eyes (8-Mar-2008) as Narrator
Madea’s Family Reunion (24-Feb-2006)
How to Make an American Quilt (6-Oct-1995) as Anna
The Journey of August King (14-Sep-1995) as Narrator [VOICE]
Poetic Justice (23-Jul-1993) as Aunt June
Author of books:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970, memoir)
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971, poetry)
Gather Together in My Name (1974, memoir)
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975, poetry)
And Still I Rise (1978, poetry)
The Heart of a Woman (1981)
Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983, poetry)
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986, memoir)
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994, poetry)
A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)