Maya Angelou

Poet, Author, Actress, Playwright

Picture of Maya Angelou
Publicity still portrait of American writer, director and actor Maya Angelou from her movie 'Georgia, Georgia' (Cinerama Releasing Co), 1972. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

Maya Angelou was an African-American author, playwright, poet, dancer, actress, and singer. Her illustrious 50-year career included publishing 36 books, including volumes of poetry and three books of essays. Angelou is credited for producing and acting in several plays, musicals, movies, and TV shows.  She is best known, however, for her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book depicts the tragedies of Angelou's traumatic childhood, detailing a brutal rape at 7 1/2, and an early adulthood encumbered by teenage pregnancy.

Dates: April 4, 1928 to May 28, 2014

Also Known As: Marguerite Anne Johnson (born as), Ritie, Rita

A Long Way From Home

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Anne Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey Johnson Sr., a porter and navy dietitian, and Vivian "Bibbie" Baxter, a nurse. Angelou’s only sibling, one-year-older brother Bailey Jr. was unable as a child to pronounce Angelou’s first name, "Marguerite," and thus nicknamed his sister "Maya," derived from "My Sister." The name-change proved useful later in Maya's life.

After her parents separated in 1931, Bailey Sr. sent three-year-old Maya and Bailey Jr. to live with his mother, Annie Henderson, in segregated Stamps, Arkansas. Momma, as Maya and Bailey called her, was the only Black female storeowner in rural Stamps and was highly respected. Despite the fact that severe poverty abounded, Momma prospered during the Great Depression and World War II by supplying basic staples. In addition to running the store, Momma took care of her paralyzed son, whom the children called “Uncle Willie.”

Although smart, Maya was extremely insecure as a child, viewing herself as awkward, unwanted, and ugly because she was Black. At times, Maya sought to hide her legs, greased them with Vaseline, and dusted them with red clay -- deeming any color was better than Black. Bailey, on the other hand, was charming, free-spirited, and extremely protective of his sister.

Life in Stamps, Arkansas

Momma put her grandchildren to work in the store, and Maya watched the exhausted cotton-pickers as they trudged to and from work. Momma was the chief stabilizer and moral guide in the children's lives, giving them valuable advice in picking their battles with white people. Momma warned that the slightest impertinence could result in lynching.

The daily indignities manifested through entrenched racism made life in Stamps miserable for the displaced children. Their shared experience of loneliness and longing for their parents led to a strong dependence on each other. The children's passion for reading provided a refuge from their harsh reality. Maya spent every Saturday in Stamps' library, eventually reading every book on its shelves.

After four years in Stamps, Maya and Bailey were surprised when their handsome father appeared driving a fancy car to take them back to St. Louis to live with their mother. Maya watched curiously as Bailey Sr. interacted with his mother and brother, Uncle Willie -- making them feel inferior with his boasting. Maya did not like it, especially when Bailey Jr. -- the splitting image of his father -- acted as if this man had never abandoned them.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Vivian was devastatingly beautiful and the children instantly fell in love with her, especially Bailey Jr. Mother Dear, as the children called her, was a force of nature and lived life to the fullest, expecting everyone else to do the same. Although Vivian had a nursing degree, she made a nice living playing poker in gambling parlors.

Landing in St. Louis during Prohibition, Maya and Bailey were introduced to underworld crime figures by their maternal grandmother (“Grandma Baxter”), who entertained them. She also had clout with the city's police. Vivian's father and four brothers had city jobs, rare for Black men, and had a reputation for being mean. But they treated the children well and Maya was awed by them, finally feeling a sense of familial belonging.

Maya and Bailey stayed with Vivian and her older boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Vivian was strong, vibrant, and independent like Momma, treating her children well. However, she was dispassionate and Maya could not establish a close relationship.

Innocence Lost

Maya craved her mother's affection so much that she began confiding in Vivian's insecure boyfriend. Maya's 7 1/2-year-old innocence was shattered when Freeman molested her on two occasions, then raped her—threatening to kill Bailey if she told.

Although he was found guilty at a hearing and sentenced to one year in jail, Freeman was temporarily released. Three weeks later, Maya overheard police telling Grandma Baxter that Freeman had been found beaten to death, presumably by her uncles. The family never mentioned the incident.

Thinking she was responsible for Freeman's death by testifying, confused Maya resolved to protect others by not speaking. She became mute for five years, refusing to speak to anyone except her brother. After a while, Vivian was unable to deal with Maya's emotional state. She sent the children back to live with Momma in Stamps, much to Bailey's discontent. The emotional consequences caused by the rape followed Maya throughout her lifetime.

Back to Stamps and a Mentor

Momma wasted no time getting Maya help by introducing her to Bertha Flowers, a beautiful, refined, and educated Black woman. The great teacher exposed Maya to classic authors, such as Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and James Weldon Johnson, as well as Black female authors. Flowers had Maya memorize certain works by the authors to recite aloud—showing her that words have the power to create, not destroy. 

Through Mrs. Flowers, Maya realized the power, eloquence, and beauty of the spoken word. The ritual awakened Maya's passion for poetry, built confidence, and slowly goaded her out of silence. Once reading books as a refuge from reality, she now read books to understand it. To Maya, Bertha Flowers was the ultimate role model—someone she could aspire to become.

Maya was a great student and graduated with honors in 1940 from Lafayette County Training School. An eighth-grade graduation was a big occasion in Stamps, but the white speaker insinuated that the Black graduates could only succeed in sports or servitude, not academics. Maya was inspired, however, when the class valedictorian led the graduates in "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," listening for the first time to the song's words.

It's Better in California

Stamps, Arkansas was a town entrenched in severe racism. For instance, one day, when Maya had a severe toothache, Momma took her to the only dentist in town, who was white, and to whom she had loaned money during the Great Depression. But the dentist refused to treat Maya, proclaiming that he would rather stick his hand in a dog's mouth than in Black Maya's. Momma took Maya outside and stamped back into the man's office. Momma returned with $10 she said the dentist owed her in interest on his loan and took Maya 25 miles to see a Black dentist.

After Bailey came home terribly shaken one day, having been forced by a white man to help load a Black man's dead, rotting body onto a wagon, Momma prepared to get her grandchildren away from further dangers. Never having traveled more than 50 miles from her birthplace, Momma left Willie and her store to take Maya and Bailey to their mother in Oakland, California. Momma stayed six months to get the children settled before returning to Stamps.

Genuinely glad to have her children back, Vivian threw Maya and Bailey a welcoming party at midnight. The children discovered their mother was popular and fun-loving, with many male suitors. But Vivian chose to marry "Daddy Clidell," a successful businessman who moved the family to San Francisco.

Upon Maya's entrance into Mission High School, she was advanced a grade and later transferred to a school where she was one of only three Blacks. Maya liked one teacher, Miss Kirwin, who treated everyone equally. At 14, Maya received a full college scholarship to the California Labor School to study drama and dance.

Growing Pains

Daddy Clidell was the owner of several apartment buildings and pool halls, and Maya was enthralled by his quiet dignity. He was the only true father figure she ever knew, making Maya feel like his cherished daughter. But when Bailey Sr. invited her to stay with him and his much younger girlfriend Dolores for the summer, Maya accepted. When she arrived, Maya was shocked to discover they lived in a low-class trailer home.

From the outset, the two women didn't get along. When Bailey Sr. took Maya to Mexico on a shopping trip, it ended disastrously with 15-year-old Maya driving her inebriated father back to the Mexican border. Upon their return, jealous Dolores confronted Maya, blaming her for coming between them. Maya slapped Dolores for calling Vivian a whore; Dolores then stabbed Maya in the hand and stomach with scissors.

Maya ran from the house bleeding. Knowing she couldn't hide her wounds from Vivian, Maya did not return to San Francisco. She was also afraid that Vivian and her family would cause trouble for Bailey Sr., remembering what happened to Mr. Freeman. Bailey Sr. took Maya to get her wounds wrapped at a friend's house.

Determined never to be victimized again, Maya fled the home of her father's friend and spent the night in a junkyard. The next morning, she found there were several runaways living there. During her month-long stay with the runaways, Maya learned to not only dance and cuss but to also appreciate diversity, which influenced the rest of her life. At summer's end, Maya decided to return to her mother, but the experience left her feeling empowered.

Movin' On Up

Maya had matured from a timid girl into a strong young woman. Her brother Bailey, on the other hand, was changing. He had become obsessed with winning his mother's affection, even beginning to emulate the lifestyles of the men Vivian once kept company with. When Bailey brought a white prostitute home, Vivian kicked him out. Hurt and disillusioned, Bailey eventually left town to take a job with the railroad.

When school started in the fall, Maya convinced Vivian to let her take a semester off to work. Missing Bailey terribly, she sought a distraction and applied for a job as a streetcar conductor, despite racist hiring policies. Maya persisted for weeks, eventually becoming San Francisco's first Black streetcar operator.

Upon returning to school, Maya began to mentally exaggerate her masculine features and became worried that she might be a lesbian. Maya decided to get a boyfriend to convince herself otherwise. But all of Maya's male friends wanted slim, light-skinned, straight-haired girls, and she possessed none of these qualities. Maya then propositioned a handsome neighbor boy, but the unsatisfying encounter didn't allay her anxieties. Three weeks later, however, Maya discovered she was pregnant.

After calling Bailey, Maya decided to keep her pregnancy a secret. Afraid that Vivian would make her quit school, Maya threw herself into her studies, and after graduating from the Mission High School in 1945 ​confessed her eighth-month pregnancy. Claude Bailey Johnson, who later changed his name to Guy, was born shortly after 17-year-old Maya's graduation.

A New Name, New Life

Maya adored her son and, for the very first time, felt needed. Her life became more colorful as she worked to provide for him by singing and dancing in nightclubs, cooking, being a cocktail waitress, a prostitute, and a brothel madam. In 1949, Maya married Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek-American sailor. But the interracial marriage in 1950s America was doomed from the start, ending in 1952.

In 1951, Maya studied modern dance under greats Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham, even teaming with Ailey to perform at local functions as Al and Rita. Working as a professional calypso dancer at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, Maya was still called Marguerite Johnson. But that soon changed when, at the insistence of her managers, Maya combined her former husband's surname and Bailey's nickname of Maya, to create the distinctive name, Maya Angelou.

When Angelou’s beloved Momma passed away, Angelou was sent into a tailspin. Distraught, but vowing to live fully, Angelou turned down a contract for a Broadway play, left her son with Vivian, and embarked on a 22-nation tour with the opera Porgy and Bess (1954-1955). But Angelou continued to hone her writing skills while traveling, as she found solace in creating poetry. In 1957, Angelou recorded her first album, Calypso Heat Wave.

Angelou had been dancing, singing, and acting throughout San Francisco, but then moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s. While there, she befriended literary great James Baldwin, who encouraged Angelou to focus directly on a writing career.

Triumph and Tragedy

In 1960, after hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, Angelou wrote along with Godfrey Cambridge, Cabaret for Freedom, to benefit King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Angelou was a great asset as a fundraiser and organizer; she was then appointed SCLC's Northern Coordinator by Dr. King.

Also in 1960, Angelou took a common-law husband, Vusumzi Make, a South African anti-apartheid leader from Johannesburg. Maya, her 15-year-old son Guy, and new husband moved to Cairo, Egypt, where Angelou became an editor for The Arab Observer.

Angelou continued taking teaching and writing jobs as she and Guy adjusted. But as her relationship with Make came to an end in 1963, Angelou left Egypt with her son for Ghana. There, she became an administrator at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, an editor for The African Review, and a feature writer for The Ghanaian Times. As a result of her travels, Angelou was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, and Fanti (a West African language).

While living in Africa, Angelou established a great friendship with Malcolm X. Upon returning to the States in 1964 to help him build the newly formed Organization of African American Unity, Malcolm X was assassinated soon thereafter. Devastated, Angelou went to live with her brother in Hawaii but returned to Los Angeles during the summer of the 1965 race riots. Angelou wrote and acted in plays until she returned to New York in 1967.

Hard Trials, Great Achievement

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march, but the plans were interrupted when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – on Angelou's 40th birthday. Reeling and vowing never to celebrate the date again, Angelou was encouraged by James Baldwin to overcome her grief by writing. 

Doing what she did best, Angelou wrote, produced, and narrated Blacks, Blues, Black!, a ten-part documentary series about the link between the blues music genre and Black heritage. Also in 1968, attending a dinner party with Baldwin, Angelou was challenged to write an autobiography by Random House editor Robert Loomis. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou's first autobiography, which was published in 1969, became an immediate bestseller and brought Angelou worldwide acclaim.

In 1973, Angelou wed the Welsh writer and cartoonist Paul du Feu. Though Angelou never spoke openly about her marriages, it was deemed by those closest to be her longest and happiest union. However, it ended in amicable divorce in 1980.

Awards and Honors

Angelou was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1977 for her role as Kunta Kinte's grandmother in Alex Haley's television miniseries, Roots.

In 1982, Angelou began teaching at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she held the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies.

Past presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton requested Angelou to serve on various boards. In 1993, Angelou was asked to write and recite a poem (On the Pulse of the Morning) for Clinton's inauguration, winning a Grammy award and being the second individual after Robert Frost (1961) so honored.

Angelou's numerous awards include the Presidential Medal of Arts (2000), the Lincoln Medal (2008), the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama (2011), the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation (2013), and the Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2013). Though her educational pursuits were limited to high school, Angelou received 50 honorary doctorates.

A Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angelou was highly respected by millions as an astounding author, poet, actor, lecturer, and activist. Starting in the 1990s and continuing to shortly before her death, Angelou made at least 80 appearances annually on the lecture circuit. 

Her comprehensive body of published works include 36 books, seven of which are autobiographies, numerous collections of poetry, a book of essays, four plays, a screenplay—oh, and a cookbook. Angelou once had three books—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Heart of a Woman, and Even the Stars Looked Lonesome—on New York Times' bestseller list for six consecutive weeks, simultaneously.

Whether through a book, a play, poem, or lecture, Angelou inspired millions, especially women, to use the negative experiences they survived as a catapult to impossible achievements.

On the morning of May 28, 2014, frail and suffering from a heart-related extended illness, 86-year-old Maya Angelou was found unconscious by her caretaker. Accustomed to doing things her way, Angelou had instructed her staff to not resuscitate her in such a condition. 

The memorial ceremony in Maya Angelou's honor, hosted by Wake Forest University, included many luminaries. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey, Angelou's long-time friend and protege, planned and directed the heartfelt tribute.

The town of Stamps renamed its only park in Angelou's honor in June 2014. 

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Your Citation
Mason, Deborah Latchison, Contributing Writer. "Maya Angelou." ThoughtCo, Jan. 17, 2021, Mason, Deborah Latchison, Contributing Writer. (2021, January 17). Maya Angelou. Retrieved from Mason, Deborah Latchison, Contributing Writer. "Maya Angelou." ThoughtCo. (accessed August 5, 2021).

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