Biography of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an American writer and civil rights activist. Angelou is best known for her many books of poetry and autobiographies, as well as her active participation in the Civil Rights Movement, which involved working with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou's parents' divorce resulted in Angelou and her brother being sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother and uncle. A contrast with the city life of her early years, Angelou grew up in Stamps’ close-knit black neighborhood under her grandmother’s strict moral and religious guidance. In 1936, Angelou was sent back to St. Louis to live with her mother. When Angelou was eight years old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her, leading to a one-day jail sentence. Angelou’s uncles murdered the man upon his release, and Angelou's fear and guilt over naming her assailant led to nearly five years of muteness. Angelou was sent back to Arkansas once again, where she sheltered herself from the world and found comfort in reading classic literature and studying at school. In 1940, Angelou moved to San Francisco with her mother. At age 16, she became the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. One year later, she graduated from high school and subsequently gave birth to her only child. While her mother embraced her newborn grandson, Angelou had to work hard to support him. She worked intermittently as a dancer, cook, waitress, and sex worker. A brief marriage and a prominent position as a dancer in a San Francisco club inspired her professional name, Maya Angelou.

In the 1950s, Angelou moved to New York City. The Harlem Writer’s Guild encouraged her budding literary talent, and she performed in several theatrical productions around the world. In 1966, she moved back to California and wrote scripts for television and film. She became one of the first black female screenwriters and directors in Hollywood. She was also a friend to both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and she worked tirelessly for the Civil Rights Movement. Inspired by her encounters with authors and editors, she eventually decided to turn the anecdotes of her colorful life into autobiographies.

In 1969, her first published autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, became a bestseller. Six subsequent autobiographies followed this early success, as well as several volumes of poetry. Her many talents earned her award nominations and wins in multiple fields, from a Pulitzer Prize nomination for poetry to five Grammy awards for her spoken-word albums. In 1981, Angelou was appointed professor of American studies at Wake Forest University. She also received many honorary degrees from universities over the course of her life.

In 1993, Angelou was invited to read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on May 28th, 2014. Angelou continues to be revered as a woman of many talents who—through her artistic, academic, and humanitarian endeavors—shed light on the issues of family, racism, sexism, and economic oppression.


Study Guides on Works by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s “Africa” was originally published in 1975 in her second volume of poetry, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. At the time of its publication, Angelou had already established herself as a prolific writer of both prose and verse....

Maya Angelou’s “Alone” was originally published in 1975 in her second volume of verse, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. By the time of the book’s publication, Angelou had already established herself as a prolific writer of both prose and...

Often interpreted as an allegory for the experience of oppressed Black Americans, Maya Angelou's "Caged Bird" is a poem that compares the experience of a captive bird to a bird who lives freely. While the free bird soars through the sky and thinks...

Harlem Hopscotch is a poem written and recorded by famed Civil Rights leader Dr. Maya Angelou in her spoken word collection The Poetry of Maya Angelou (1969). The poem was later published in her anthology collection, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of...

On the Pulse of Morning is a poem and speech written by famed Civil Rights leader Dr. Maya Angelou as part of the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993. The poem is a call to recognize America’s history of slavery and racism, as well...

“Still I Rise” is one of Maya Angelou’s most celebrated poems. Originally published in 1978 in Angelou’s third volume of verse, And Still I Rise, it shares its title with a play she wrote in 1976 and was written during a highly prolific time in...