Biography of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Upon her parents’ divorce in 1931, she and her brother were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother and uncle. A world away from 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. Nonetheless, Angelou was deeply loved by her family there, and her admiration for her hardworking grandmother—the respected owner of a general store—planted the seeds for her powerful prose about strong black women.

In 1936, Angelou was sent back to St. Louis to live with her mother. When she was 8 years old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her, leading to a meager one-day jail sentence. When Angelou’s uncles murdered him upon his release, her 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 hard at school. Eventually, a loving neighbor helped her find her voice again.

In 1940, Angelou moved to San Francisco with her mother. At age 16, she became the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Around this time, she had a brief fling with a local teenaged boy. One year later, she graduated from high school and subsequently gave birth to her only child, a son named Guy. While her mother embraced her newborn grandson, Angelou had to work hard to support him. She worked intermittently as a dancer, cook, waitress, and prostitute. 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. At one point, Angelou moved to Ghana and worked as a journalist there. 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, despite the fact that she had never attended college. 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, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, and she recited a poem for Nelson Mandela in 2013 upon his passing.

Maya Angelou passed away on May 28th, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Angelou continues to be revered as a woman of many talents who—through her artistic, academic, and humanitarian endeavors—shed light on important issues such as 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...

“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...