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About Maya Angelou: She Knows Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Allen L. Taylor

Maya Angelou began her life on April 4, 1928 as Marguerite Johnson. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Baxter. She received her name Maya from her older brother, also named Bailey. Her career as a writer extends beyond merely poetry for she has penned two autobiographies, several plays, TV shows, and has appeared on stage in a few Broadway plays as well.

Maya Angelou's most famous work, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, was written in 1969. Her follow up autobiography, Gather Together In My Name, came later, in 1974. The story tells of her and her brother's troubles during childhood.

After their parents divorced, the two children went to live with their grandmother, Anne Henderson, who resided in Stamps, Arkansas, in 1930. They soon came to know her as "Momma." While living in Stamps, Maya witnessed the harassment and degradation of African Americans, which she would write about later in her books. Maya excelled academically and graduated from Lafayette County Training School with honors. She and Bailey went to live with their remarried mother in 1940 in San Francisco, California.

In San Francisco, life for Maya Angelou was different than it had been in the south. African Americans had more rights and were treated more respectfully. Maya learned how to lead a life of self-respect from her mother during this time of her life. At 16, Maya gave birth to a son, Guy Johnson, out of wedlock.

The birth of Guy added to the difficulties of Maya's life. She became a job hopper and worked, at various times, as a cook, a bartender, and even a whore house manager. After seeking advice from her mother Maya Angelou decided to join the Army and spent two years in service, where she received a better education and learned some discipline. She married Tosh Angelos in 1952 and her writing and acting careers began to take off.

In 1954 she appeared in "Porgy and Bess," a 22-nation tour sponsored by the Department of State. She then went to off-Broadway and appeared in several plays, including Cabaret for Freedom, which she also helped write. Due to her emphasis on civil rights, the Southern Christian Leadership appointed her northern coordinator until she moved to Africa in the early 1960s.

In 1961-62, Maya Angelou acted as the associate editor of Arab Observer, an English language news weekly in Cairo, Egypt. She also served as assistant administrator of the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies in Legon-Accra, Ghana, and wrote for Ghana Times.

After writing several plays for the stage, Maya began penning her autobiographies and published I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which was nominated for the National Book Award. She also began writing poetry during this time and wrote several other books up through 1986. Her poetry volumes include Just Give Me A Cool Drink Of Water 'Fore I Die (1971), Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (1983), Now Sheba Sings The Song (1987), I Shall Not Be Moved (1990), Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now (1993), The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994), A Brave and Startling Truth (1995), and A Song Flung Up To Heaven (2002).

Maya Angelou has made a big impact on literature and drama in the U.S. Her influence flourishes today in many parts of the world.

Allen Taylor has been writing poetry for 20 years and has been published in a variety of journals online and in print. He is the webmaster of World Class Poetry at and writes the daily blog at

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