Pulitzer Prize-winning African American author and an important figure in the American Civil Rights.. American Poet
Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson April 4, 1928) is an American poet, memoirist, actress and an important figure in the American Civil Rights Movement.
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, and in 1993, Angelou read her poem On the Pulse of Morning written for Bill Clinton's Presidential inauguration at his request. 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.
Angelou has published many other collections of verse, has traveled abroad to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and has worked as a journalist for foreign publications. She is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Ghanian Fante.
She has received numerous honors including the Yale University Fellowship. She was also named the Rockefeller Foundation Scholar in Italy. Angelou has taught at the University of Ghana and the University of Kansas and holds a lifetime chair as the Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Additional honors include the Woman of the Year Award and a nomination for the Tony Awards. In 2005, Angelou was honored by Oprah Winfrey at her Legends Ball along with 25 other African-American women who Winfrey considered as an inspiration. At the beginning of each academic year, she gives the opening address to all incoming freshman at Duke University. Also, she is an English professor at Wake Forest University. Angelou's doctorates are all honorary. She is not a doctor except in the honorary sense; in fact, she has no college education.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928. In 1931, her parents divorced and she and her older brother Bailey were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. While she was living with her grandmother, Maya participated in many dance classes including tap, jazz and salsa. She performed at many recitals and won numerous awards for her inspirational dancing. After five years apart from their mother, the children returned home. This move eventually took a turn for the worse when Angelou, 8, was raped by her mother's boyfriend. This devastating act caused her to become selectively mute for nearly four years, speaking only to her brother. She was sent back to Stamps because no one could handle the grim state Angelou was in. With the constant help of a woman named Mrs. Flowers, Angelou began to evolve into the girl who had possessed the pride and confidence she once had.
In 1940, she and her brother were sent to San Francisco to live with their mother again. Life with her mother was in constant disorder; it soon became too much for her so her father came and took her to live with him and his girlfriend in their rundown trailer. Finding that life with him was no better, she ended up living in a graveyard of wrecked cars that housed mainly homeless children. It took her a month to get back home to her mother. Angelou's bad childhood spent moving back and forth between her mother and grandmother caused her to struggle with maturity. She became determined to prove she was a woman and began to rush toward maturity. Angelou soon found herself pregnant, and at the age of sixteen she delivered her son, Guy. She later danced and sang tropical island songs with an ersatz Caribbean accent at Enrico Banducci's famed hungry i San Francisco nightclub.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Angelou's first work of literature, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is an autobiography. Angelou's sometimes disruptive life inspired her to write this book. It reflects the essence of her struggle to overcome 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. The work displays an impulse towards transcendence.
Gather Together in My Name
Gather Together in My Name 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
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 book, 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.
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 childrens television show, Sesame Street. She also appeared in Tyler Perry's "Madea's Family Reunion" (2006).
In another piece of Maya Angelou TV trivia, she had another TV appearance 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-wrenching 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 drunkness 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 served as 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, entitled "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.