Maya Angelou was born ‘Marguerite Johnson’ on April 4th, 1928. She lived with her parents in St. Louis Missouri until the age of three. After her parents got divorced, she moved to Arkansas to live with her grandmother for four years. Then, her father sent Angelou and her older brother back to their mother’s care. During this time Angelou suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. After telling her family what had happened, the rapist was murdered by Angelou’s uncles. The trauma and guilt Angelou suffered from these events caused her to go mute for almost five years.
It was during this mute period that Angelou grew her love for literature, poetry, and dance. She became incredibly observant and developed an amazing memory. Throughout her adolescence and young adulthood, Angelou held many titles. Such positions included: being the first Black, female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, waitressing at a nightclub, touring with a production of Porgy and Bess, recording a CD, and becoming a mother at age 16. In 1959, she moved to New York and began to focus on what she would become most known for: her career in writing.
Angelou’s life moved fast at this point, and her accomplishments began piling up. Some of these included becoming an administrator at the University of Ghana, various journalism and performing gigs, and helping create the Organization of Afro-American Unity with Malcolm X. She also wrote, produced, and narrated a ten-part docu-series about the connection between African heritage and Blues music called Blacks, Blues, Black!. All of these achievements serve as a precursor to one of Angelou’s most notable works. In 1969, Angelou published her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 2 years following its release.
In 1972, Angelou became the first Black woman to write a screenplay for a major film release. In 1993, She became the first female inaugural poet in U.S. presidential history. Her inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”, won a grammy award. Some more of her accolades include the Coretta Scott King Award, a Tony Award nomination, over 50 honorary degrees, and multiple lifetime achievement awards. In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is considered the highest honor a US civilian can receive. Angelou continued writing and getting her work published throughout her entire life.
A Legacy That Continues To Grow
Maya Angelou passed away in May of 2014 at the age of 86. Despite her death, Angelou’s influence on the world continued to grow. Soon after her passing, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings rose to number 1 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Her poetry books continue to be sold to millions of people and the cadence of her poetry has forever influenced hip-hop music. In 2010, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem acquired Angelou’s papers and career memorabilia. In 2021, it was announced that Angelou would become the 1st Black woman to be featured on a US quarter. That quarter is now in circulation.
In 2017, Wake Forest University opened the Angelou Residence Hall (Angelou was a longtime professor at the university). A Maya Angelou Barbie Doll was created as a part of Mattel’s inspiring women doll series. Starting in July of 2022, Angelou will be featured in a Smithsonian Gallery titled: I Dream a World: Selections from Brian Lanker’s Portraits of Remarkable Black Women. This spring, from May 20th – June 5th, 2022, the New York City Children’s Theater is putting on the stage adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Maya Angelou once said, “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.” It’s clear that she fulfilled her mission.
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