Maya Angelou is famous for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. In 1971, Angelou published the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die. She later on wrote the poem “On the Pulse of Morning”—one of her most well-known works—which she recited at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Angelou has received a number of honors all through her career, which includes two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009.
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.
The Early Years
Multi-talented barely seems to cover the depth and breadth of Maya Angelou’s successes. She is an author, actress, screenwriter, dancer and poet. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Angelou had a challenging childhood. Her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother, Bailey, was sent to live with their father’s mother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.
As an African American, Angelou encountered firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas. She also experienced at the hands of a family associate around the age of 7: During a visit with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Then, as vengeance for the sexual assault, Angelou’s uncles murdered the boyfriend. So traumatized by the experience, Angelou stopped talking. She returned to Arkansas and spent years as a virtual mute.
During World War II, Angelou moved to San Francisco, California, where she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School. Also during this time period, Angelou became the first black female cable car conductor—a job she held only briefly, in San Francisco.
In 1944, a 16-year-old Angelou gave birth to a son, Guy (a short-lived high school relationship had led to the pregnancy), thereafter working numerous jobs to support herself and her child. In 1952, the future literary icon wed Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor from whom she took her professional name—a blend of her childhood nickname, “Maya,” and a shortened version of his surname.
In the mid-1950s, Angelou’s career as a performer started to take off. She landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, later appearing in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and releasing her first album, Miss Calypso (1957). A member of the Harlem Writers Guild and a civil rights activist, Angelou arranged and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also serving as the SCLC’s northern coordinator.
In 1961, Angelou made an appearance in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson. Even though the play gained solid reviews, Angelou moved on to other pursuits, spending much of the 1960s abroad; she initially lived in Egypt after which in Ghana, working as an editor and a freelance writer. Angelou also held a position at the University of Ghana for a time.
After returning to the United States, Angelou was urged by friend and fellow writer James Baldwin to write regarding her life experiences. Her efforts resulted in the enormously successful 1969 memoir about her childhood and young adult years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. The poignant work also made Angelou an international star.
Since publishing Caged Bird, Angelou has continued to break new ground-not just artistically, but educationally and socially. She wrote the drama Georgia, Georgia in 1972-becoming the first African-American woman to have her screenplay produced-and went on to earn a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play Look Away (1973) and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television miniseries Roots (1977), among other honors.
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