Maya Angelou

Name originally Marguerite (some sources say Marguerita) Johnson; surname is pronounced "An-ge-lo"; born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, United States; daughter of Bailey (a doorkeeper and naval dietician) and Vivian (a nurse and realtor; maiden name, Baxter) Johnson; married Tosh Angelou (divorced c. 1952); married Paul Du Feu, December, 1973 (divorced); children: Guy Johnson, who is also an author.

By the time she was in her early twenties, Maya Angelou had been a Creole cook, a streetcar conductor, a cocktail waitress, a dancer, a madam, and an unwed mother. The following decades saw her emerge as a successful singer, actress, and playwright, an editor for an English-language magazine in Egypt, a lecturer and civil rights activist, and a popular author of five collections of poetry and five autobiographies. In 1993 Angelou gave a moving reading of her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration, an occasion that gave her wide recognition.

Angelou is hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary black  literature and as a remarkable Renaissance woman. She began producing books after some notable friends, including author James Baldwin, heard Angelou's stories of her childhood spent shuttling between rural, segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where her devout grandmother ran a general store, and St. Louis, Missouri, where her worldly, glamorous mother lived. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a chronicle of her life up to age sixteen (and ending with the birth of her son, Guy) was published in 1970 with great critical and commercial success. Although many of the stories in the book are grim, as in the author's revelation that she was raped at age eight by her mother's boyfriend, the volume also recounts the self-awakening of the young Angelou. "Her genius as a writer is her ability to recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary and especially in its process of image-making," reports Sidonie Ann Smith in Southern Humanities Review. "The imagery holds the reality, giving it immediacy. That [the author] chooses to recreate the past in its own sounds suggests to the reader that she accepts the past and recognizes its beauty and its ugliness, its assets and its liabilities, its strengths and its weaknesses. Here we witness a return to the final acceptance of the past in the return to and full acceptance of its language, the language a symbolic construct of a way of life. Ultimately Maya Angelou's style testifies to her reaffirmation of self-acceptance, [which] she achieves within the pattern of the autobiography."

Author, poet, playwright, professional stage and screen producer, director, and performer, and singer. Taught modern dance at Habima Theatre, Tel Aviv, Israel, and the Rome Opera House, Rome, Italy. Appeared in Porgy and Bess on twenty-two-nation tour sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, 1954-55; appeared in Off-Broadway plays Calypso Heatwave, 1957, and The Blacks, 1960; produced and performed in Cabaret for Freedom, with Godfrey Cambridge, Off-Broadway, 1960; University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies, Legon-Accra, Ghana, assistant administrator of School of Music and Drama, 1963-66; appeared in Mother Courage at University of Ghana, 1964, and in Meda in Hollywood, 1966; made Broadway debut in Look Away, 1973; directed film All Day Long, 1974; directed her play And Still I Rise in California, 1976; directed Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl in London, England, 1988; appeared in film Roots, 1977. Television narrator, interviewer, and host for Afro-American specials and theatre series, 1972. Lecturer at University of California, Los Angeles, 1966; writer in residence at University of Kansas, 1970; distinguished visiting professor at Wake Forest University, 1974, Wichita State University, 1974, and California State University, Sacramento, 1974; professor at Wake Forest University, 1981--. Northern coordinator of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1959-60; appointed member of American Revolution Bicentennial Council by President Gerald R. Ford, 1975-76; member of National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year.

Go to the poems "Phenomenal Woman", and "Inaugural Poem", delivered by Maya Angelou at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993.

Page last updated on February 6, 2003