Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights, activist. Maya Angelou, the original name was Marguerite Annie Johnson and she was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Although born in St. Louis, Angelou spent much of her childhood in the care of her paternal grandmother in rural Stamps, Arkansas. When she was not yet eight years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and told of it, after which he was murdered; the traumatic sequence of events left her almost completely mute for several years. This early life is the focus of her first autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) which gained critical acclaim and a National Book Award nomination. Subsequent volumes of autobiography include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013).
In the 1950s, Angelou found encouragement for her literary talents at the Harlem Writers’ Guild. About the same time, Angelou landed a featured role in a State Department-sponsored production of George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess; with this troupe, she toured 22 countries in Europe and Africa. She also studied dance with Martha Graham and Pearl Primus. In 1961 she performed in Jean Genet’s play The Blacks. That same year she was persuaded by a South African dissident to whom she was briefly married to move to Cairo, where she worked for the Arab Observer. She later moved to Ghana and worked on The African Review.
Angelou returned to California in 1966 and wrote Black, Blues, Black (aired 1968), a 10-part television series about the role of African culture in American life. She was the first black woman director in Hollywood, and she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television. As the writer of the movie drama Georgia, Georgia (1972), she became one of the first African American women to have a screenplay produced as a feature film. She also acted in such movies as Poetic Justice (1993) and How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and appeared in several television productions, including the miniseries Roots (1977). Angelou received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in Look Away (1973), even though the play closed on Broadway after only one performance. In 1998 she made her directorial debut with Down in the Delta (1998). The documentary Maya Angelou and Still I Rise (2016) depicts her life through interviews with Angelou and her intimates and admirers.
Angelou’s poetry, collected in such volumes as Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971), And Still, I Rise (1978), Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987), and I Shall Not Be Moved (1990), drew heavily on her personal history but employed the points of view of various personae. She also wrote a book of meditations, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993), and children’s books that include My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994), Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (1998), and the Maya’s World series, which was published in 2004–05 and featured stories of children from various parts of the world. Angelou dispensed anecdote-laden advice to women in Letter to My Daughter (2008); her only biological child was male.
Angelou died on May 28, 2014, when she was 86, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982.