Biography of Maya Angelou, Writer and Civil Rights Activist

Maya Angelou

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Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) was a celebrated poet, memoirist, singer, dancer, actor, and civil rights activist. Her autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," a bestseller published in 1969 and nominated for the National Book Award, revealed her experiences growing up as an African-American during the Jim Crow Era. The book was one of the first written by an African-American woman to appeal to a mainstream readership.

Fast Facts: Maya Angelou

  • Known For: Poet, memoirist, singer, dancer, actor, and civil rights activist
  • Also Known As: Marguerite Annie Johnson
  • Born: April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri
  • Parents: Bailey Johnson, Vivian Baxter Johnson
  • Died: May 28, 2014 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina
  • Published Works: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, The Heart of a Woman
  • Awards and Honors: National Medal of Arts, Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Spouse(s): Tosh Angelos, Paul du Feu
  • Child: Guy Johnson
  • Notable Quote: "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style."

Early Life

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father Bailey Johnson was a doorman and navy dietitian. Her mother Vivian Baxter Johnson was a nurse. Angelou received her nickname from her older brother Bailey Jr., who couldn't pronounce her name so he called her Maya, which he derived from "my sister."

Angelou's parents divorced when she was 3. She and her brother were sent to live with their paternal grandmother Anne Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas. Within four years, Angelou and her brother were taken to live with their mother in St. Louis. While living there, Angelou was raped before she turned 8 years old by her mother’s boyfriend. After she told her brother, the man was arrested and, upon his release, was killed, probably by Angelou's uncles. His murder and the trauma surrounding it caused Angelou to be almost completely mute for five years.

When Angelou was 14, she moved with her mother to San Francisco, California. She took lessons in dance and drama on a scholarship to the California Labor School and graduated from George Washington High School. That same year, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son Guy. She worked to support herself and her child as a cocktail waitress, cook, and dancer.

Arts Career Begins

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. She also took modern dance classes. She returned to California and teamed with dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey to perform at African-American fraternal organizations as “Al and Rita” throughout San Francisco.

In 1954, Angelou’s marriage ended but she continued dancing. While performing at San Francisco's Purple Onion, Angelou decided to use the name "Maya Angelou" because it was distinctive. She combined the nickname her brother had given her with a new last name she derived from her former husband's surname.

In 1959, Angelou became acquainted with novelist James O. Killens, who encouraged her to hone her skills as a writer. Moving back to New York City, Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild and began to publish her work.

About the same time, Angelou landed a role in a State Department-sponsored production of George Gershwin’s folk opera "Porgy and Bess" and toured 22 countries in Europe and Africa. She also studied dance with Martha Graham.  

Civil Rights

The following year, Angelou met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and she and Killens organized the Cabaret for Freedom benefit to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Angelou was appointed the SCLC’s northern coordinator. Continuing her performance career, in 1961 she appeared in Jean Genet’s play "The Blacks."

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

While living in Ghana, Angelou became an active member of the African-American expatriate community, meeting and becoming a close friend of Malcolm X. When she returned to the United States in 1965, Angelou helped Malcolm X develop the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Before the organization could really begin working, however, he was assassinated.

In 1968, while she was helping King organize a march, he, too, was assassinated. The death of these leaders inspired Angelou to write, produce, and narrate a 10-part documentary titled “Blacks, Blues, Black!”

The following year, her autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," was published by Random House to international acclaim. Four years later, Angelou published "Gather Together in My Name," which told about her life as a single mother and budding performer. In 1976, "Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' 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), and "Mom & Me & Mom" (2013) came later.

Other Highlights 

In addition to publishing her autobiographical series, Angelou produced the film "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 Golden Globes-winning TV mini-series "Roots."

In 1981, Angelou was appointed the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Then, in 1993, Angelou was chosen to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton's inauguration. 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 her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Death

Maya Angelou had been having health issues for many years and was suffering from heart problems when she died on May 28, 2014. She was found by her caretaker at her home in Winston-Salem, where she had taught for a number of years at Wake Forest University. She was 86.

Legacy

Maya Angelou was a trailblazer in achieving success in so many fields as an African-American woman. Immediate respondents to her passing indicated the breadth of her influence. They included singer Mary J. Blige, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, and President Barack Obama.

In addition to the National Medal of Arts presented by President Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by President Obama, she was given the Literarian Award, an honorary National Book Award for contributions to the literary community. Before her death, Angelou had been awarded more than 50 honorary degrees.

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