Facts About Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, 1978. Jack Sotomayor / Getty Images

Thanks to her award-winning writing, Maya Angelou was internationally known decades before her death at age 86 in 2014. Despite her fame and her many memoirs, many interesting details about her life remain widely unknown to the public. Familiarize yourself with the life and work of Maya Angelou with this list of interesting facts about her life.

Family Life

  • She may have risen to fame as “Maya Angelou,” but she was not born with that first name or with that surname. Instead, Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. “Maya” derives from a childhood nickname and Angelou is a shortened version of Angelopoulos, the surname of a Greek sailor the writer married in 1952.
  • It’s uncertain how many times Angelou married, the New York Times reported in her obituary. “Throughout her life, she was cagey about the number of times she married—it appears to have been at least three—for fear, she said, of appearing frivolous,” the Times noted.
  • Although Angelou married a number of times, she bore just one child, a son named Guy Johnson. She gave birth to him at the age of 16. He was the product of a brief romance Angelou had with a neighborhood boy in Northern California.

Career

  • During her young adulthood, Angelou became the first black woman to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco, according to the Times.
  • Although Angelou stood 6 feet tall, she managed to carve out a career as a dancer as a young woman. She even danced with the likes of Alvin Ailey.
  • Angelou appeared in a number of theatrical productions, earning a Tony nomination for her role in 1973’s “Look Away,” a play about Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress.

Friendship With Prominent African Americans

Literary Career

  • Angelou rose to fame after the publication of her 1969 memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. That book made history, as it marked the first time an autobiography by an African-American woman became a best-seller in the United States.
  • Caged Bird was far from Angelou’s only memoir. The writer followed that effort up with 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) and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). Moreover, in 2013, Angelou’s memoir about her relationship with her mother, Mom & Me & Mom, debuted.
  • Despite the fact that she excelled as a writer above all else, Angelou said that the craft did not come easily to her. In 1990, she told the Paris Review, “I try to pull the language into such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.” 

More About Maya Angelou

  • A globetrotter, Angelou spoke a number of languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and the West African language Fanti.
  • Angelou had a seafood allergy. Apparently, it was so severe that she requested people not to eat seafood prior to meeting with her.