Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist, poet, and author who won multiple awards. She is best known for her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1969, and her other collections of poetry and essays.
Who Was Maya Angelou?
Maya Angelou was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet, and civil rights activist. She is best known for her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. This book made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller written by an African American woman. Angelou was also a dancer. Throughout her career, Maya Angelou was awarded many accolades, including two NAACP Image Awards in the area of outstanding literary achievement (nonfiction), one in 2005 and one in 2009.
On April 4th, 1928, Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, United States. Angelou struggled throughout her childhood. Her parents divorced when she was a very young child, and she and her older brother, Bailey, moved to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their father’s mother, Anne Henderson.
As an African American living in Arkansas, Maya Angelou was subjected to first-hand experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination. Around the age of seven, she was additionally victimized by a family friend who did the following to her: Angelou was sexually assaulted by the boyfriend of her mother while she was staying with her mother. Angelou’s uncles took the boyfriend’s life as an act of retaliation for the sexual assault they had committed.
Angelou was speechless due to the ordeal’s profound effect on her. She relocated back to Arkansas, where she lived for many years, hardly speaking words.
During the Second World War, Angelou relocated to San Francisco, California. There, she was awarded a scholarship to attend the California Labor School, where she would study ballet and acting.
Angelou also made history during this time by being the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, a role she only held for a short time.
Acting and Singing Career
Angelou’s performing career did not start to take off until the middle of the 1950s. She later appeared in the off-Broadway musical Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and released her debut album, Miss Calypso, after landing a role in a touring version of Porgy and Bess (1957).
As a civil rights activist and a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, Maya Angelou was responsible for producing and starring in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom, which was a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou also served as the northern coordinator for the SCLC during its existence.
Angelou made her stage debut in 1961, co-starring alongside James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr., and Cicely Tyson in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s play The Blacks.
Angelou received some distinctions after that, including a nomination for a Tony Award for her performance in the play, Look Away (1973) and an Emmy Award for her performance in the television miniseries Roots (1977).
Time in Africa
Angelou resided outside of the United States throughout most of the 1960s, first in Egypt and then in Ghana, where she supported herself by working as a freelance editor and writer. Angelou was also employed by the University of Ghana for some time and held a job there.
In Ghana, she became involved with a society of “Revolutionist Returnees” that explored pan-Africanism and had a close relationship with the human rights activist and Black nationalist leader Malcolm X. During this time, she was also exposed to many different political ideologies. Angelou assisted Malcolm X in establishing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964, shortly after the latter’s return to the United States. The group was dissolved the following year, 1965, after Malcolm X was assassinated.
‘Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie’ (1971)
There are various volumes of poems that Maya Angelou has published, but the one that has brought her the greatest notoriety is Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die, which was published in 1971 and was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize.
Other famous collections of Angelou’s poetry include:
- Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), which includes Angelou’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 Angelou reading this poem in an advertisement at the 2016 Olympics
- Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997)
‘On the Pulse of Morning’ (1993)
Angelou wrote this poem, especially for the inaugural ceremony of President Bill Clinton in January 1993, and she read it there. It is now considered one of her most famous compositions. Robert Frost’s reading of “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, this event was the first time an inaugural poem had been read aloud at a presidential inauguration since 1961.
Angelou went on to get a Grammy Award for the audio version of the poem, which was deemed the best-spoken word album.
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)
Angelou’s friend and fellow author James Baldwin encouraged her to write about the things that happened to her throughout her life. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the resulting piece of writing, was published in 1969 and became a tremendous commercial hit. It was a memoir of her youth and early adulthood.
The heartfelt account is the first work of nonfiction written by an African American woman to become a New York Times bestseller. This book, which is credited with making Maya Angelou a household name worldwide, is still considered her most successful autobiographical work.
Angelou received a lot of praise in 1995 for setting a record by being on the paperback nonfiction bestseller list of The New York Times for a total of two years, which was, at the time, the longest streak in the chart’s history.
‘Gather Together in My Name’ (1974)
Angelou’s second autobiography, which is a follow-up to A Caged Bird, is a memoir in which she discusses her life as an unemployed teenage mother in California. During this time, she turned to narcotics and prostitution.
‘Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas’ (1976)
Angelou wrote this autobiography, it discusses her early career as a singer and actor.
‘The Heart of a Woman’ (1981)
This book was written by Angelou and is about how she left California with her son and moved to New York, where she became involved in the civil rights movement.
‘All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes’ (1986)
This autobiographical book recounts the years that Maya Angelou spent living in Ghana and provides a poetic investigation of the meaning of being an African American in Africa.
‘Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now’ (1994)
This uplifting collection of Angelou’s essays contains her reflections on various aspects of spirituality and healthy life.
‘A Song Flung Up to Heaven’ (2002)
A Song Flung Up to Heaven is another autobiographical work that explores Maya Angelou’s return from Africa to the United States and her subsequent struggle to cope with the tragic assassinations of two human rights leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she worked. The book is titled after one of Angelou’s poems. The story comes to a close when Maya Angelou begins writing “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” after being encouraged by her friend James Baldwin.
‘Letter to My Daughter’ (2008)
This collection of writings by Maya Angelou is titled “Living a Meaningful Life,” It is dedicated to the daughter she did not have. It includes Angelou’s counsel for young women on how to have a meaningful life.
‘Mom & Me & Mom’ (2013)
In her autobiography, Maya Angelou recalls her tumultuous connection with her mother, who abandoned her when she was a youngster.
Angelou, who was interested in health, has published several cookbooks, one of which is titled Hallelujah! Great Food, All Day Long (2007) and The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (2005) were published in 2007. (2010).
Screenplay Author and Director
After the publication of Caged Bird in 1969, Maya Angelou became the first African American woman to have her screenplay produced the following year with her drama Georgia, Georgia. This achievement paved the way for her to break new ground in art, education, and society.
Angelou made her debut as a filmmaker in 1998 with the film Down in the Delta, which starred Alfre Woodard. Angelou was looking for new creative challenges at the time.
Accomplishments and Awards
Throughout her career, Maya Angelou has received many honors and nominations, including the Audience Choice Award from the Chicago International Film Festival in 1998 and a nomination for Down in the Delta at the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999.
In addition, she was honored with two NAACP Image Awards for outstanding creative achievement (nonfiction) in recognition of her cuisine from 2005 and her book Letter to My Daughter from 2008.
On Maya Angelou’s birthday (April 4) in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., a personal friend, was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. Angelou did not continue to celebrate her birthday for many years after the assassination of King. However, she continued to send flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for over three decades, until Coretta’s death in 2006.
Oprah Winfrey, famous for her role as a talk show host on television, was a close friend of Maya Angelou and helped plan multiple birthday parties for the bestselling author, including a cruise for the author’s 70th birthday in the year 1998.
In 1944, when Angelou was just 16 years old, she gave birth to a son named Guy (a short-lived high school relationship led to the pregnancy). After she gave birth, she went on to work various jobs to provide for herself and her child. Guy Johnson is the name that Maya Angelou’s son currently goes by; he is also a poet.
Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor, was the one who gave Maya Angelou her professional name. It combines her childhood nickname, “Maya,” and a shorter form of his surname. Maya Angelou married Anastasios Angelopulos in 1952. The couple eventually got a divorce.
Angelou is notoriously private about her personal life, although it is believed that she tied the knot at least three times, the last time being in 1973 to a carpenter named Paul du Feu.
Angelou passed away on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She had been battling health problems for some years before her passing. The news of her passing immediately spread, and many individuals took to social media to express their sadness and remember Angelou. In remembrance of her, some people, including the singer Mary J. Blige and the politician Cory Booker, tweeted their favorite quotes that she had written.
Angelou was also mentioned in a statement issued by President Barack Obama, who praised her as “a remarkable lady who is also an outstanding author, a loyal friend, and a formidable opponent.
Angelou has the potential to jolt us into remembering that we are all children of God and that each of us has something unique to contribute, “he had written.
Angelou was selected to be one of the first women honored by the United States Mint with the release of a new series of commemorative quarters, which was announced in May of 2021.
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