Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Ann Johnson) in St. Louis, Missouri,
USA) is an African American poet, memoirist, actress and an important
figure with the American Civil Rights Movement.
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 for Bill Clinton's
Presidential inauguration at his request.
has published many other collections of verse, speaks numerous
languages fluently, has traveled abroad to Europe, the Middle
East, and Africa, and has worked as a journalist for foreign publications.
has received numerous honors from the academy 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 her early twenties she was given the name Maya Angelou after
her debut performance as a dancer at the Purple Onion cabaret.
Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a naval dietician, and her mother
was Vivian Baxter. She has one sibling, a brother named Bailey
after their father. When she was about three years old, their
parents divorced and the children were sent to live with their
grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.
claims that her grandmother, whom she called "Momma, had
a deep-brooding love that hung over everything she touched."
Growing up in Stamps, Angelou learned what it was like to be a
black girl in a world whose boundaries were set by whites. She
learned what it meant to have to wear old hand me downs from a
white woman. And she also learned the humiliation of being refused
treatment by a white dentist. As a child she always dreamed of
waking to find her "nappy black hair" metamorphosed
to a long blond bob because she felt life was better for a white
girl than for a black girl. Despite the odds, her grandmother
instilled pride in Angelou with religion as an important element
in their home.
five years of being apart from their mother the children were
sent back to Saint Louis to be with her. This move eventually
took a turn for the worst when Angelou was raped by her mother's
boyfriend. The devastating act of violence committed against her
caused her be silenced to everyone except her brother for nearly
five years. She was sent back to Stamps because no one could handle
the grim state Angelou was in.
the constant help of a woman named Mrs. Flowers, Angelou began
to evolve into the young girl who had possessed the pride and
confidence she once had. Again in 1940, she and her brother were
sent to San Francisco to live with their mother. 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 mainly
housed homeless children.
took her a month to get back home to her mother. Angelou's dysfunctional
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.
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
Together in My Name
Her second book, 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.
and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas
Angelou's third novel, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry
Like Christmas, 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 herself 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 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.
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.
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.