Maya Angelou, original name Marguerite Annie Johnson, (born April 4, 1928, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.—died May 28, 2014, Winston-Salem, North Carolina), American poet, memoirist, and actress whose several volumes of autobiography explore the themes of economic, racial, and sexual oppression.
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; TV movie 1979), 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 1940 Angelou moved with her mother to San Francisco and worked intermittently as a cocktail waitress, a prostitute and madam, a cook, and a dancer. It was as a dancer that she assumed her professional name. Moving to New York City in the late 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. 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), despite the fact that 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.
In 1981 Angelou, who was often referred to as “Dr. Angelou” despite her lack of a college education, became a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Among numerous honours was her invitation to compose and deliver a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” for the inauguration of U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton in 1993. She celebrated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” (1995) and elegized Nelson Mandela in the poem “His Day Is Done” (2013), which was commissioned by the U.S. State Department and released in the wake of the South African leader’s death. In 2011 Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Angelou’s career has seen numerous accolades, including the Chicago International Film Festival’s 1998 Audience Choice Award and a nod from the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999 for Down in the Delta.
She also won two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, for her 2005 cookbook and 2008’s Letter to My Daughter.
Martin Luther King Jr., a close friend of Angelou’s, was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968. Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta’s death in 2006.
Angelou was also good friends with TV personality Oprah Winfrey, who organized several birthday celebrations for the award-winning author, including a week-long cruise for her 70th birthday in 1998.
In 1944, a 16-year-old Angelou gave birth to a son, Guy (a short-lived high school relationship led to the pregnancy). After giving birth, she worked a number of jobs to support herself and her child. A poet himself, Angelou’s son now goes by the name Guy Johnson.
In 1952, Angelou wed Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor from whom she took her professional name — a blend of her childhood nickname, “Maya,” and a shortened version of his surname. The couple later divorced.
Notoriously secretive about her marriages, Angelou was likely married at least three times, including in 1973 to a carpenter, Paul du Feu.
After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The news of her passing spread quickly with many people taking to social media to mourn and remember Angelou. Singer Mary J. Blige and politician Cory Booker were among those who tweeted their favorite quotes by her in tribute.
President Barack Obama also issued a statement about Angelou, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Angelou “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer,” he wrote.
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