Maya Angelou’s biography is full of ups and downs, glorious events and huge poetic legacy. In her books, poems, and autobiography she tells her life story that many people can relate to.
Maya Angelou was one of the most famous African American authors and poets. She is considered to be one of the most influential and legendary poets of our times. Maya Angelou’s biography is among interesting ones to explore.
One of her most famous autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, brought her international fame and success. She died in 2014, but she will always be remembered for how meaningful and powerful her words were.
Maya Angelou’s Biography
April 4, 1928
St. Louis, Missouri
Maya Angelou’s birth name was Marguerite Annie Johnson. She lived for several years with her paternal grandmother, who, despite the hardships many people dealt with due to the Great Depression, lived very well because of the store she owned.
However, a few years later, when Maya and her siblings moved back to St. Louis, Maya was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. After telling her brother, who reported the incident to the rest of the family, her rapist was sent to jail for a day and upon being released, was murdered, presumably by one of Maya’s uncles.
After this, Maya refused to speak for five years, because she believed that her voice had already killed one man; if she spoke ever again, then her voice may kill more people. According to a biography written about Angelou, it was during this time that her love of writing and literature was developed, and when she discovered that she had an immense talent in writing.
Angelou married a Greek electrician and aspiring musician, Tosh Angelos, in 1951. Many people, including her mother, were highly disapproving of the relationship, because of the fact that interracial relationships were looked down upon at the time.
Her last name of Angelou was Tosh’s last name. Maya began to study dancing, and attempted to create a dance team, but was unsuccessful.
After the end of their marriage, Maya started to dance and sing in clubs all around San Francisco, California. Her managers at the Purple Onion, one of the nightclubs she performed in, suggested that she change her name to Maya Angelou, which was considered to be very distinctive. She began to tour around Europe and eventually studied many European languages. She released her first album, Miss Calypso.
Maya Angelou’s Writing Career
Early Writing Career
In 1959, upon the novelist John Oliver Killens’ suggestion, Maya moved to New York so that she could further pursue a career in writing. While there, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and became friends with many other prominent African American writers.
Maya and her son, Guy Johnson, moved to Ghana so that Guy could pursue his education at a college, but he could not continue as he was injured in a car accident.
While in Ghana, she became one of the administrators at the University of Ghana and was very active in the community of African-American expats.
When they returned to the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted Maya Angelou to be the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
When he was assassinated on her birthday in 1968, she was in such grief that she had ceased to celebrate her birthday for many years after.
In 1969, Maya Angelou published her first autobiography, titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became famous internationally and is still widely read today.
Maya also wrote the screenplay for the film Georgia, Georgia, which was the first film to have its screenplay written by a black woman. She also continued to write many TV scripts, documentaries, short stories, articles, autobiographies, and poetry. She produced plays, and was a visiting professor at many different universities.
Maya received more than thirty honorary degrees from different colleges and universities all across the globe. She became a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, despite the fact that she held no formal bachelor’s degree.
One of her most famous works was the poem which she recited at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, On the Pulse of Morning. It gained her a lot of fame and recognition, even more so than the other works which she had published in the past.
After she recited the poem, her previous works sold so quickly, that her publisher had struggled to keep up. She won a Grammy award for best spoken word album when the audio version of On the Pulse of Morning was released.
She wrote seven autobiographies and aimed to write a chronology of autobiographies to depict several different parts of her life
After I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was the most famous and highly acclaimed, the rest of her autobiographies were titled: Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, and Mom & Me & Mom.
All of these autobiographies discussed different parts of her life and altogether are considered to be a collection of her life story.
- The first book was about her life up until the age of 17,
- the next was about her life from the years 1944 until 1948,
- the third was about her life from 1949 until 1955,
- the fourth was from 1957 until 1962,
- the fifth was about 1962 until 1965,
- the sixth was about her life from the years 1965 until 1968,
- the final book, Mom & Me & Mom, published in 2013, was an overview of the entirety of her life.
Some of her other works besides her autobiographies include: I Shall Not Be Moved, Soul Looks Back in Wonder, Oh Pray My Wings Are Going to Fit Me Well, And Still I Rise, and Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing.
After her first autobiography was published, she was considered to be a modern memoirist, and was considered to be influential in the African American community especially because of the fact that she discussed her personal life so publicly, which was not really common among women at the time.
Her work is considered to have revolutionized the way that particularly African Americans wrote, because it allowed them to freely express themselves and their lives in their writing, and her autobiographies were considered to have allowed African Americans to finally and truly express themselves without apology.
It encouraged many female writers to write unapologetically. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is also the first bestseller in non-fiction which has been written by an African American woman. She was also on the New York Times’ bestseller list for paperback nonfiction for two years in a row in 1995.
Awards and Prizes of Maya Angelou
Angelou was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry book, titled Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.
She won three Grammys because of her spoken word albums. She had over fifty honorary degrees from different colleges and universities and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2011.
Her books of poetry and autobiographies are frequently used in school curriculums to teach about racism and how to respond to racism in their communities.
Some of her other awards include being nominated for a Tony Award for best-supporting actress, winning the North Carolina Award in Literature, and being appointed to the Bicentennial Commission by President Gerald Ford.
She was also appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.
The Ladies’ Home Journal named her Woman of the Year in Communications in 1983 and, in that same year by the same magazine, was labeled one of the top hundred most influential women in the world.
Maya Angelou has been frequently referred to “the black woman’s poet laureate” and many African Americans use her poetry as their inspiration.
Her poems, however, have not become as famous as her collection of autobiographies, and have been considered to be more popular when she recited them as opposed to when they were published.
Maya Angelou’s Death & Legacy
Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, due to poor health. She had been in a lot of pain and had overall failing health for the preceding ten years, but had still managed to write four books.
Many people throughout the world grieved her death, and many paid tribute to her. Some of these people include former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Obama’s sister was named after Maya Angelou. Her first autobiography was the number one selling book on Amazon in the week after her death.
At her funeral, besides her son, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Barack Obama all held speeches, and the funeral was broadcast and streamed live both online and on local radio stations. A stamp was created in her honor in 2005.
Despite many of the hardships that she had faced throughout the course of her life, Maya Angelou had learned how to overcome them and became one of the most successful African American writers in history.
She helped many African American women gain self-confidence and feel as though they were allowed to freely express themselves in their writing. As a supporter of women’s rights and the rights of minorities, Maya Angelou was highly influential and was the friend of many prominent people.
She will always be remembered for her legacy.
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