Maya Angelou: Writer and Civil Rights Activist

Maya Angelou reading "On the Pulse of Morning" in 1993. Public Domain

Overview

In 1969, writer Maya Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The autobiography reveals her experiences of growing up as a young African-American girl during the Jim Crow Era. The text was one of the first of its kind written by an African-American woman to appeal to a mainstream readership.

Early Life

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Mo. Her father, Bailey Johnson was a doorman and navy dietitian.

Her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson was a nurse and card dealer. Angelou received her nickname from her older brother, Bailey Jr.

When Angelou was three, her parents divorced. She and her brother were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Ark.

 Within four years, Angelou and her brother were taken to live with their mother in St. Louis. While living with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After telling her brother, the man was arrested and mysteriously killed upon his release. His murder caused Angelou to be silent for almost five years.

When Angelou was 14, she went to live with her mother again in California. Angelou graduated from George Washington High School. At the age of 17 Angelou gave birth to her son, Guy.

Career as a Performer, Civil Rights Activist, and Writer

Angelou began taking modern dance classes in the early 1950s. Teaming up with dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, the pair performed at African-American fraternal organizations throughout San Francisco as “Al and Rita.” In 1951, Angelou moved to New York City with her son and her husband Tosh Angelos so that she could study African dance with Pearl Primus.

In 1954, Angelou’s marriage ended and she began dancing in performance spaces throughout  San Francisco. While performing at the Purple Onion, Angelou decided to use the name Maya Angelou because it was distinctive.

In 1959, Angelou became acquainted with James O. Killens, a novelist, who encouraged her to hone her skills as a writer.

Moving to New York City, Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild and began to publish her work.

The following year, Angelou met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and decided to organize the Cabaret for Freedom benefit to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Soon after, Angelou was appointed as the SCLC’s Northern Coordinator.  

The following year, Angelou became romantically involved with South African activist Vususmzi Maki and moved to Cairo. Angelou worked as an associate editor for the Arab Observer. In 1962, Angelou moved to Accra, Ghana where she worked at the University of Ghana. Angelou also continued to hone her craft as a writer—working as a feature editor for The African Review, a freelancer for Ghanian Times and radio personality for Radio Ghana.

While living in Ghana, Angelou became an active member of the African-American expatriate community. It was here that she met and became close friends with Malcolm X. When she returned to the United States in 1965, Angelou helped X develop the Organization of Afro-American Unity. However, before the organization could really begin working, Malcolm X was assassinated.

In 1968, while helping King organize a march, he too was assassinated.

The death of these leaders inspired Angelou to write, produce and narrate a ten-part documentary entitled “Blacks, Blues, Black!”

The following year, her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published by Random House. The autobiography garnered international acclaim. Four years later, Angelou published Gather Together in My Name, which told readers about her life as a single mother and budding performer. In 1976, Singin and Swingin and Getting Merry Like Christmas was published. The Heart of a Woman followed in 1981. Sequels All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) as well as Mom & Me & Mom (2013) were also published.

Other Career Highlights 

In addition to publishing her autobiographical series, Angelou produced Georgia, Georgia in 1972.

 The following year she was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in Look Away. In 1977, Angelou played a supporting role in the mini-series Roots.

In 1981, Angelou was appointed the Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University.

In 1993, Angelou was chosen to recite the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of Bill Clinton.

In 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and other items from her career to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The following year, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, to Angelou.