Maya Angelou, original name Marguerite Annie Johnson, (born April 4, 1928, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.—died May 28, 2014, Winston-Salem, North Carolina), American poet, memoirist, and actress whose several volumes of autobiography explore the themes of economic, racial, and sexual oppression.
Although born in St. Louis, Angelou spent much of her childhood in the care of her paternal grandmother in rural Stamps, Arkansas. When she was not yet eight years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and told of it, after which he was murdered; the traumatic sequence of events left her almost completely mute for several years. This early life is the focus of her first autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969; TV movie 1979), which gained critical acclaim and a National Book Award nomination. Subsequent volumes of autobiography include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013).
In 1940 Angelou moved with her mother to San Francisco and worked intermittently as a cocktail waitress, a prostitute and madam, a cook, and a dancer. It was as a dancer that she assumed her professional name. Moving to New York City in the late 1950s, Angelou found encouragement for her literary talents at the Harlem Writers’ Guild. About the same time, Angelou landed a featured role in a State Department-sponsored production of George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess; with this troupe, she toured 22 countries in Europe and Africa. She also studied dance with Martha Graham and Pearl Primus. In 1961 she performed in Jean Genet’s play The Blacks. That same year she was persuaded by a South African dissident to whom she was briefly married to move to Cairo, where she worked for the Arab Observer. She later moved to Ghana and worked on The African Review.
Angelou returned to California in 1966 and wrote Black, Blues, Black (aired 1968), a 10-part television series about the role of African culture in American life. As the writer of the movie drama Georgia, Georgia (1972), she became one of the first African American women to have a screenplay produced as a feature film. She also acted in such movies as Poetic Justice (1993) and How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and appeared in several television productions, including the miniseries Roots (1977). Angelou received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in Look Away (1973), despite the fact that the play closed on Broadway after only one performance. In 1998 she made her directorial debut with Down in the Delta (1998). The documentary Maya Angelou and Still I Rise (2016) depicts her life through interviews with Angelou and her intimates and admirers.
Cicely Tyson (left) and Maya Angelou (right) in a scene from the 1977 television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots (published 1976)
Angelou’s poetry, collected in such volumes as Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971), And Still, I Rise (1978), Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987), and I Shall Not Be Moved (1990), drew heavily on her personal history but employed the points of view of various personae. She also wrote a book of meditations, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993), and children’s books that include My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994), Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (1998), and the Maya’s World series, which was published in 2004–05 and featured stories of children from various parts of the world. Angelou dispensed anecdote-laden advice to women in Letter to My Daughter (2008); her only biological child was male.
In 1981 Angelou, who was often referred to as “Dr. Angelou” despite her lack of college education, became a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Among numerous honors was her invitation to compose and deliver a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” for the inauguration of U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton in 1993. She celebrated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” (1995) and elegized Nelson Mandela in the poem “His Day Is Done” (2013), which was commissioned by the U.S. State Department and released in the wake of the South African leader’s death. In 2011 Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.