Get Your Premium Membership

Maya Angelou Biography | Poet

Photo of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson, was an Pulitzer Prize-winning African American poet. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 8 1928 and died in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on May 28, 2014. Angelou was also a dancer, an actress and a singer.

Her most prominent works include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which documents her childhood, and The Heart of a Woman. She won multiple awards and honorary degrees throughout her life. She was awarded the Quill Award for Poetry in 2006 for the poem 'Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem'. Angelou was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the highest civilian award in the United States - three years before her death. She won the NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work (Poetry) in 2007 as well as the BET Honors Award for Literary Arts in 2012.

Angelou was educated at the San Francisco Labor School, where she won a scholarship to study dance and drama, but left at the age of 14 to become a cable car conductor - she was the first African-American woman to do the job.

She gave birth when she was just 16 years old to her only child, Guy. To make money, she worked as a prostitute - something she wrote about in her work. In the 1950's, she worked as a professional dancer in San Francisco where she was convinced to use the stage name "Maya Angelou". After this, she worked at the Arab Observer in Egypt - where she was the sole female worker - before spending time teaching and writing in Ghana.

While her career is mostly remembered for her various writings, Angelou also spent time working as an actress, a film-maker and a producer. She starred in 'Roots' in 1977 and had a part in 'The Richard Pryor Special?'. In 1998 she directed Down in the Delta, a film starring Alfre Woodard and Al Freeman, Jr.

At the 1993 Presidential Inauguration, Angelou recited a poem from her And Still I Rise volume. She was the first African-American woman to perform at an inauguration.


Angelou is hailed as one of the most significant authors of her time, and is seen as a torch-bearer for African-American women. She received worldwide acclaim upon publishing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 - a volume where she discusses how she is kept from freedom. However, her work has also been criticized for being controversial - for raising issues such as pornography - and some have even been removed from libraries.

Angelou was well-known for her civil rights activism and worked with both Malcolm X - who she first met in Ghana - and Martin Luther King. She aided X in building the Organization of Afro-American Unity until he was assassinated in 1964. King was killed four years later on her 40th birthday. Despite their deaths, Angelou continued to work in civil rights.

The freedom with which Angelou wrote owes a lot to her legacy. She was considered influential for freely writing about her personal experiences - her seven autobiographies openly documented her life. Before her works, black women were often marginalized and unable to properly showcase their lives. Angelou's story of succeeding from poverty and struggle has left her revered both in her field and in society as a whole. 

Maya Angelou: Poems | Best Poems | Short Poems | Quotes