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by Rick Lewis, NPS
- Occupation: Writer, Poet, Civil Rights Activist
- Born: April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri
- Died: May 28, 2014 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina
- Best known for: Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Where did Maya Angelou grow up?
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her closest family member and friend growing up was her older brother Bailey. When Maya was three years old, she went to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Maya and her four year old brother traveled to Arkansas all by themselves on a train.
While living with her grandmother, Maya's uncle taught her to read. Maya was a smart girl who loved to read. Her favorite thing in the world was books and the stories they told her.
How did she get the name Maya?
When Maya was still a baby, her brother Bailey called her "My Sister." However, it came out like "Maya Sister." Eventually, he just started calling her "Maya" and the nickname stuck. She got the last name "Angelou" from her first husband.
Maya is Hurt
When Maya was seven, she moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother. While living there, her mother's boyfriend hurt Maya very badly. Not long after telling her mother about it, the boyfriend was shot and killed. Maya thought that she had caused the man's death with her voice. She felt so bad that she didn't speak for the next five years.
Maya continued to move around the country. She graduated from high school in California and then began to work a variety of jobs including fry cook, waitress, cable-car conductor, and dancer. Maya was a talented dancer, singer, and actress. She became fairly famous for her acting and even toured Europe as part of the cast of the opera Porgy and Bess.
Civil Rights Activist
During the 1960s, Maya worked as a civil rights activist. She first worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and became the Northern coordinator for his organization, the SCLC. Later, she worked for Malcolm X, but was devastated when he was assassinated. She continued to work for the rights of African-Americans and women throughout her career.
Becoming a Famous Writer
Although Maya had a lot of interests and careers, her true love was writing. She always worked on and off as a writer. At first, she considered herself a playwright and a poet, but that changed in 1968 when she attended a dinner party. At the party, Maya told some stories from her early life. Some people at the party encouraged her to write her story.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
In 1969, Maya published her first autobiography called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book tells the story of her life up until the age of seventeen. In the book, Maya captures the many struggles she went through growing up as an African-American woman in the mid-1900s. She also shows how she overcame these issues through character, books, and words.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings became a huge success and was on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years. It made Maya an international star and allowed her to write full time.
Maya Angelou at President Bill Clinton's inauguration
from the Clinton Library
Some of Maya Angelou's most famous works include:
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
- Gather Together in My Name
- Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas
- The Heart of a Woman
- All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes
- A Song Flung Up to Heaven
- Mom & Me & Mom
- On the Pulse of Morning
- Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Die
- And Still I Rise
- Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now
- Even the Stars Look Lonesome
Maya continued to write up until her death on May 28, 2014 at the age of 86.
Interesting Facts about Maya Angelou
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the first nonfiction best-selling book by an African-American woman.
- She had one son, Guy Johnson, at the age of seventeen.
- In 1973, she was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the play Look Away.
- She taught as a full-time professor at Wake Forest University.
- She recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the 1993 presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton.