Maya Angelou was an internationally acclaimed African American author, poet, actress, dancer and civil rights activist. She was born as Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She had a rough childhood and was sent to live with her grandparents after her own parents’ divorce. At the age of 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was then killed by her uncles in revenge. The incident left her so shaken that she withdrew into herself and didn’t speak a word for years. Other than that, early memories of racial discrimination also left her disturbed and confused.
Angelou won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School in San Francisco. A brief high school relationship left her pregnant, and she gave birth to her only child at the age of 16. She had to hold a number of petty jobs in order to support herself and the baby. At the age of 24, she wed a Greek man named Anastasios Angelopulos. Interracial marriages were not common at the time and the match was frowned upon by her family, especially her mother. During the 1950s, Angelou made her name as an actress. Her first major role was in Porgy and Bess, and she toured Europe with the production company for this performance. She also trained as a modern dancer with the renowned American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, and had a TV performance with Alvin Ailey.
Angelou’s marriage ended in 1954, and she began dancing professionally in clubs such as the Purple Onion in San Francisco. Here she danced to calypso music and recorded her first album titled “Miss Calypso”. She also changed her name by adopting her husband’s last name and her own childhood nickname, because the name “Maya Angelou” was more distinctive and memorable. In 1959, she moved to New York to focus on writing and joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. She also met Martin Luther King Jr. and organized a show called “Cabaret for Freedom” to help raise funds for his cause. In 1961, she began dating a South African freedom fighter named Vusumzi Make, and moved with him to Cairo, where she worked as an associate editor at a newspaper called “The Arab Observer”.
Her relationship with Make ended in 1962, so she moved to Ghana where her son was involved in a terrible accident. She stayed in Ghana to nurse him back to health, and worked as an administrator at the University of Ghana. During this time she also began to work as a freelance writer for The Ghanaian Times, wrote and performed radio shows for Radio Ghana and Ghana National Theatre and was a feature editor for The African Review. In a few short years, she lost two of her valued friends and associates, namely Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. both of whom were assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr. was actually assassinated on Angelou’s birthday, and she stopped celebrating her birthday in honor of her friend. She would send flowers to his wife Coretta each year on his death anniversary for 30 years until Coretta’s own death in 2006.
Angelou was very depressed by these events, and during this time her friend James Baldwin really supported her. Baldwin encouraged her to write her autobiography and helped her to publish it as well. It was titled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, and was published in 1969. It gained international acclaim and became the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. She wrote several other autobiographies during her life, including “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” published in 1986 and “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” published in 2002. Continuing with her literary success, Angelou wrote a drama called “Georgia, Georgia” in 1972, which was the first screenplay written by an African American woman to have been produced. She also acted in the play “Look Away” which got her a Tony Award nomination, and the TV series “Roots” which won her an Emmy Award nomination.
Angelou was a remarkable poet as well, and published several collections of poems. Her book of poems titled “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She wrote a special poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration titled “On the Pulse of Morning” which she recited at the ceremony. She recorded this and won a Grammy Award for “Best Spoken Word Album”. In 1996, she directed the film “Down in the Delta”. Angelou wrote a number of inspirational essays and books such as “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now” and “Letter to My Daughter”. She also published her own cook books.
Maya Angelou died in May 2014 at the age of 86. Her life and work is remarkable and unparalleled, and her death has left a sad void in the literary and entertainment worlds. Some of her close friends include the talk show host Oprah Winfrey and Senator Hillary Clinton. She also supported Obama during his presidential campaign, and Obama expressed his grief at her passing.