Maya Angelou

Though best known for her work as a writer and autobiographer, Maya Angelou was a Renaissance woman, having found success as a singer, dancer, actor, composer, and (first female black) director.

Photo: Maya Angelou, 1957, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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    Born in St. Louis, Maya Angelou is best known for her autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), which was immediately proclaimed an international success. Despite traumatic events that occurred when she was a child (she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was seven years old and refused to speak for the next five years), Angelou was a prolific reader at a young age and graduated the top of her class in eighth grade. As a teenager, Angelou won a scholarship San Francisco’s California Labor School for her love of the arts. After dropping out, becoming the first female cable car conductor, and giving birth to her son Guy, Angelou graduated high school and worked many odd jobs to support herself and her son.

    Her big break came in 1954 with a touring production of Porgy and Bess, and in the late 1950s, Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild and became associated with important writers, such as James Baldwin, and important Civil Rights Leaders, such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After working as the northern coordinator for Dr. King’s SCLC, Angelou worked in Cairo and Ghana in West Africa. When she returned to the United States in the mid-1960s, fellow writers encouraged her to write her autobiography, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, winner of the National Book Award, became the first of Angelou’s six autobiographies.

    Though Angelou’s poetry is praised more for content than form and “poetic virtue,” her 1971 volume Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Her screenplay Georgia, Georgia was also produced in 1972, making her the first black woman to have a screenplay.

    Besides her literary success with Caged Bird, Angelou’s fame increased in the early 1990s when President Bill Clinton invited her to write and read a poem at his inauguration. Her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” composed for the occasion, not only addresses social injustices but also calls for peace and acceptance at the beginning of a new chapter of American history.

    –Christie Finn

    Related Information




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