Updated: Sep 22, 2021
Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist, poet, author, director, songwriter, and dancer who was best known for her powerful autobiographical work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Much of what she wrote came directly from her own personal experiences, particularly as a child and young adult.
Ms. Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She had a traumatic childhood. She faced many hardships, including dealing with her parents splitting up, being forced to live with her grandmother, and a sexual assault that would lead to her temporary muteness at the age of eight-years-old. She was mute for nearly five years.
During this time, she developed a love for literature that would inspire her career as an author. She began speaking again after a family friend and teacher, Ms. Bertha Flowers, challenged her to read poetry aloud. Angelou was introduced to many famous poets and authors during this time including Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Shakespeare. She was also introduced to less famous but groundbreaking Black writers such as Francis Harper.
At the age of 14 she moved back with her mother in Oakland, California becoming the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco at age 16. She later had a child and married in 1951, but the marriage ended only three years later.
After her divorce, she began establishing her stage presence as “Maya Angelou” and started dancing professionally in clubs around San Francisco. She later toured Europe for a year while she was in the production of the opera, Porgy and Bess. In 1959, after meeting a novelist who encouraged her to write, she moved to New York to focus on her writing career.
During her time in New York, she began getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement after meeting Martin Luther King Jr and hearing him speak. She became the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the civil rights organization where Dr. King was president, serving as a key coordinator and fundraiser for the organization. She later became close friends with Malcolm X and she helped play a role in building a new civil-rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. While she was devastated by both Dr. King’s and Malcolm X’s assassinations, she continued developing both her writing career and speaking career, as well as staying active in the Civil Rights Movement.
By the time of her death in 2014, Angelou had received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Her personal accounts of her childhood, her extensive and varied career, as well as her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement continue to inspire many today.