Maya Angelou

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou
Born: April 4, 1928 (1928-04-04) (age 79)
Flag of United States Saint Louis, Missouri
Occupation: Poet, dancer, producer, playwright, director, author
Nationality: American

Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson April 4, 1928)[1] is an American poet, memoirist, actress and an important figure in the American Civil Rights Movement. In 2001 she was named one of the 30 most powerful women in America by Ladies Home Journal.[2]

Maya Angelou is known for the autobiographical writings I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986). Her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Career
    • 2.1 Works
      • 2.1.1 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
      • 2.1.2 Gather Together in My Name
      • 2.1.3 Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas
      • 2.1.4 The Heart of a Woman
      • 2.1.5 All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes
      • 2.1.6 Clothes hoax
  • 3 Film and television
  • 4 Awards and nominations
  • 5 Poetry works
  • 6 References
  • 7 External links

Early life

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. In 1931, when she was three years old, her parents divorced and she and her 4-year old brother, Bailey, were sent alone, by train, to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. While living with her grandmother, Angelou participated in a wide variety of dance classes including tap, jazz, foxtrot, and salsa. After four years in Stamps, the children returned to their mother's care. At age eight, Angelou confessed that her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freemen, had sexually abused her, and Angelou's uncles beat the man to death. Horrified by the outcome, she became mute, believing, as she has stated, that "the power of [her] words led to someone's death." She remained nearly mute for another five years, at which point her mother sent the children to live with their grandmother once again. Angelou credits a close friend in Stamps, Mrs. Flowers, for helping her "re-find her voice." She began to speak again at age 13. During one of her first bouts of activism, Angelou persisted at age 15 in becoming the first black person hired on the San Francisco streetcars.

In 1940, while spending the summer with her father in the Los Angeles area, Angelou was assaulted by her father's live-in girlfriend, which led to her running away from home and spending a month as a resident of a junk yard that housed other homeless children. She finally called her mother and was sent a ticket back home to San Francisco, but her month of homelessness had a profound effect on her way of looking at the world. As she says in p. 254 of Caged Bird, "After a month my thinking processes had so changed that I was hardly recognizable to myself. The unquestioning acceptance of my peers had dislodged the familiar insecurity...After hunting down unbroken bottles and selling them with a white girl from Missouri, a Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a Black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly outside the pale of the human race. The lack of criticism evidenced by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance in my life."

Angelou became pregnant at the age of 16 and gave birth to her son, Guy Raphael Johnson, who also became a poet. To support herself, she sang, with an affected Caribbean accent, at Enrico Banducci's famed Purple Onion San Francisco nightclub. During this phase of her career she released a record album on the Liberty Record label entitled "Miss Calypso." It has since become a highly sought-after collectible among fans of record albums by celebrities.


Besides poetry, Angelou has published collections of verse, and has contributed to periodicals in the United States and abroad. A polyglot, Angelou speaks several languages besides her native English, including French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Ghanian Fante.

In September 2006 XM Satellite Radio announced that Maya Angelou would host a weekly radio show on Oprah Winfrey's radio channel Oprah & Friends.[1]


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Angelou's first work of literature, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is an autobiography that was published in 1969. Angelou's disruptive life inspired her to write this book. It reflects the essence of her struggle to the restrictions that were placed upon her in a hostile environment. Angelou wrote with a twist of lyrical imagery along with a touch of realism. The title of this book is taken from the poem "Sympathy" by the great black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Gather Together in My Name

Gather Together in My Name, published in 1974, centers on Angelou and her brother's move away from their grandmother. This transition takes place from her later teen years through her mid twenties, focusing on her experiences as a mother, a Creole cook, a madam, a tap dancer, a prostitute, and a chauffeurette. Also in the novel, Angelou writes about an affair with a customer at a restaurant and her brief experience with drugs.

Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas

Published in 1976, Angelou's third novel covers about five years of her life from the ages of twenty-two to twenty-seven. During this period she was married to Tosh Angelos, a white man and an ex-sailor, who she shows to be intelligent, kind, and reliable. He was a temporary source of stability for her and her son, but after three years of marriage they fell out of love. She divorced him and returned to her career as a dancer. Shortly afterwards she joined the European touring production of Porgy and Bess. She devotes over half of the book to describing the tour. She talks about how the guilt over her neglect of her son nearly drove her to suicide, but her love of life, motherhood, and dancing sent her running home.

The Heart of a Woman

The title of her fourth novel, The Heart of a Woman, comes from a poem that was written during the Harlem Renaissance by the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. Once again, in this memoir, Angelou is in search of her identity and place. The book is told from a perspective that matches that of her first novel and has a similar psychological depth. Narrating her thirties, Angelou reflects on her son Guy, the civil rights movement, marriage, and her own writing. During this period, she became more committed to her writing and was inspired by her friend, John Killens, a distinguished social activist author. Also, during that time she made a commitment to promote black civil rights and examine the nature of racial oppression, racial progress and racial integration.

All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes

Angelou's fifth autobiography, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, shows her to have developed an even greater sense of connection with her African past. She dedicates this book to Julian Mayfield and Malcolm X, who both were passionately and earnestly in search of their symbolic home. After her visit to Ghana, she was swept into adoration for the country and adopted it as her homeland.

As well as each single book, Maya Angelou now has one book that includes all her autobiographies.

Clothes hoax

Starting in March 1999, a poem called Clothes that eventually came to be attributed to Angelou circulated on the internet. The poem makes a number of false and defamatory claims labeling various clothing manufacturers as racists and members of the KKK. Through a spokesman and on her website, Angelou has denied that she wrote the poem. [2][3]

Film and television

Angelou wrote the screenplay and score for the film Georgia, Georgia in 1971; the screenplay was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for Look Away (her debut role), and an Emmy for her role in the 1977 miniseries Roots. In 1976 she directed an episode of the award-winning television anthology series, "Visions." She was the first African-American woman admitted to the Directors Guild of America. In 1998 she directed the feature film, Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard. She was also on the popular children's television show, Sesame Street. She also appeared in Tyler Perry's "Madea's Family Reunion" (2006).

Maya Angelou appeared in 1977 in a brief cameo on The Richard Pryor Special? (a special to showcase Pryor's talents) as the wife of a drunkard, Willie (played by Pryor). The scene had begun humorously in a bar, so viewers expected that, when Willie came home, the laughs would continue. However, when Ms. Angelou greets him at the door, she begins a heart-rending monologue that continues as she watches him collapse on the couch into a drunken sleep (the crowd can even be heard laughing as she begins, not expecting the turn it takes). It comments on Willie's deterioration into drunkenness and the way in which it (and racial inequity) crushes his spirit. The monologue effectively exposes the truth of the situation, converting Willie's character and antics from humorous to sad, and at the end of the monologue, the audience (which has, by now, become silent) gives her a heartfelt applause.

In 1978, Angelou was host to a 30-episode educational series produced by the Coast Community College District in Southern California in conjunction with the City Colleges of Chicago. The series, titled "Humanities in the Arts", covers broad topics including film, architecture, literature, and poetry. Still used in colleges throughout the United States as a telecourse series, the series offers many opportunities to hear Angelou read various poetry -- including her own -- in her sonorous voice, infusing the poetry with great meaning. [4]

Awards and nominations

Angelou read her poem On the Pulse of Morning during Bill Clinton's Presidential inauguration. It was only the second time in U.S. history that a poet had been asked to read at an inauguration, the first being Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.[3] [4]

Angelou has been honored by numerous academic institutions throughout her career. She has been awarded a fellowship by Yale University, and also served as a Rockefeller Foundation Scholar in Italy. Angelou has taught at the University of Ghana, Radford University, University of Kansas, and at Wake Forest University, where she holds a lifetime chair as the Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of American Studies. For several years Angelou has delivered an opening address to the incoming freshman class of Duke University. Although Angelou has, in her later career, received several honorary doctorates, she never received a college education.

Outside of academia, Angelou has achieved recognition for her poetry from bodies honoring achievement in music and theater. She has received a nomination for the Tony Awards, and in 1993 won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for On the Pulse of Morning. In 2005, Angelou was honored by Oprah Winfrey at her "Legends Ball" along with 25 other African-American women whom Winfrey considered inspirational.[5]

Poetry works

  • American Girl
  • A Conceit
  • Alone
  • Built to Last
  • Equality
  • Massa Got Me workin
  • Human Family
  • Refugee
  • Insomniac
  • Lost Children
  • Justice
  • Men
  • Million Man March Poem
  • Momma Welfare Roll
  • Cornbread and Watermelon Pie
  • On the Pulse of Morning
  • The Promise Penny
  • Passing Time
  • Phenomenal Woman
  • The Proud Highway
  • Refusal
  • The White Man Keeps Me Down
  • Remembrance
  • Still I Rise
  • The Detached
  • The Lesson
  • The Rock Cries Out to Us Today
  • They Went Home
  • Touched by an Angel
  • Love Is a Long Road
  • Weekend Glory
  • When You Come
  • Woman Work
  • You Don't Know How it Feels
  • Kin
  • True Love
  • Mother
  • Life Doesn't frighten me
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • A Song Flung Up To Heaven
  • These Yet to be the United States
  • In & Out of Time
  1. ^ Enyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ The power index. Ladies' Home Journal. Retrieved on 2007-05-28.
  3. ^ Maya Angelou. On the Pulse of Morning. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Retrieved on 2007-05-28.
  4. ^ Audio recording of Angelou Reading On the Pulse of Morning (Au file). Retrieved on 2007-05-28.
  5. ^ Oprah Winfrey's Legends Weekend: The Legends (flash). Retrieved on 2007-05-28.
  • Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: Maya Angelou
  • PBS
  • Maya Angelou on Biography and other material from the Academy of American Poets
  • Maya Angelou at the Open Directory Project
  • Text of On the Pulse of Morning, poem recited at the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton
  • 2005 Commencement Address, Michigan State
  • Maya Angelou on Oprah & Friends Radio
  • Oprah interviews Maya Angelou
  • Maya Angelou at the Internet Movie Database
  • Maya Angelou biography and video interview excerpts by The National Visionary Leadership Project
  • Interview with David Frost on behalf of The Sun newspaper
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