Maya Angelou was a remarkable woman who left an indelible mark on the world with her writing and activism. As we celebrate Women’s Month, it is important to recognize the contributions of women like Maya Angelou who have paved the way for future generations.
On April 4, 1928, Marguerite Ann Johnson – famously known as Maya Angelou – was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents’ rocky marriage and subsequent divorce meant that shortly after her birth, Angelou was sent to live with her maternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Her older brother Bailey then gave her the nickname ‘Maya’.
At the age of seven, Angelou returned to her mother’s care for a brief period. Tragically, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. He was subsequently arrested and killed after being released from jail. Angelou believed that her confession of the trauma contributed to his death, leading her to become mute for six years. During this period and into her teenage years, she lived with her grandmother in Arkansas.
When the war began, Angelou, at 15 years old, was determined to gain employment and applied to join the Women’s Army Corps. Unfortunately, her application was declined due to her involvement with the California Labor School, which had been accused of having Communist ties. Consequently, she applied for a position as a streetcar conductor. Angelou became a trailblazer in 1944 when she became the first African American woman to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
In 1949, she wed Tosh Angelos, an electrician in the US Navy. She adopted his surname and kept it until their divorce in 1952. Maya Angelou was celebrated for her singing and dancing talents, particularly in the calypso and cabaret styles. During the 1950s, she toured the US, Europe, and northern Africa, producing albums of her recordings.
In 1950, African American writers in NYC established the Harlem Writers Guild to support and foster the publication of Black authors. In 1959, Maya Angelou joined the Guild and also became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, acting as the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a renowned African American advocacy organization.
In 1969, Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was released. It was nominated for the National Book Award and resonated with readers due to its depiction of personal strength in the face of childhood trauma and racism. Despite attempts to ban it for its frank description of sexual abuse, it helped other survivors tell their stories. The book has sold over a million copies worldwide and been translated into numerous languages. Angelou published six more autobiographies, culminating in 2013’s Mom & Me & Mom.
Maya Angelou was an acclaimed poet, essayist, and spoken word artist. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her 1971 volume Just Give Me a Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, and won three Grammy Awards for her spoken word albums. These included On the Pulse of the Morning (1993), which she wrote and performed at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
Maya Angelou was a multi-talented artist who excelled in writing, acting, directing and producing. In 1972, she made history as the first African American woman to have her screen play adapted into a film with the release of Georgia, Georgia. In 1973, she was nominated for a Tony Award for her supporting role in Jerome Kitty’s play Look Away. Angelou also starred as Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the television miniseries Roots in 1977.
In 1981, Angelou was offered the Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University. This was followed by President Clinton awarding her the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and becoming a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Wake Forest University Writers Hall of Fame in 2012.
On May 28, 2014, Angelou passed away. Memorials were held in her honor at Wake Forest University and Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. In 2015, the US Postal Service issued a stamp with her likeness on it to honor her legacy (although it mistakenly included a quote associated with Angelou that was actually written by Joan Walsh Anglund).
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest civilian honor – as a fitting recognition for her remarkable and inspiring career in the arts.