Maya Angelou’s reputation as one of the world’s most famous and prolific writers needs little introduction. The author of seven autobiographies, three books of essays and several books of poetry, her first autobiography and arguably most famous work, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969) propelled her to lasting international fame. Her subsequent work until her death in 2014 focused on themes such as racism, identity, family and travel, and her legacy continues to leave a cultural imprint upon the world.
However, much of Angelou’s work was informed by difficult events in her life. For instance, the consequences of a sexual assault at a young age left her mute for five years, and the assassination of her friends Malcolm X and then Martin Luther King Jr. left her depressed and adrift. However, in spite of her struggles, her brilliant and illuminating writing has marked her as a historically significant figure for her role as a civil rights leader who fought for social and racial justice.
Here are 10 facts about Maya Angelou’s extraordinary life.
1. She was mute for five years
From being the product of a ‘calamitous marriage’ to being sent away to live with her grandmother, Angelou had a difficult childhood. However, aged just eight, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother about the incident, and later testified against her attacker in court. Though he was convicted, he only spent one day in prison. Four days after he was released, he was murdered, likely by one of Angelou’s family members.
Angelou blamed herself for his death, believing that in speaking his name, her voice had killed someone. She refused to speak for the next year – a condition called selective mutism – during which time she developed her listening, observing and memorising skills, as well as a love of literature. She also credits her teacher, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, for helping her to speak again. Flowers challenged her by saying, ‘You do not love poetry, not until you speak it.’
2. ‘Maya Angelou’ is a stage name
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis in 1928. However, her childhood nickname was ‘Maya’, derived from her brother calling her ‘My’ or ‘Mya Sister’. When working as a calypso dancer in San Francisco from 1954, she assumed a professional name that seemed more ‘distinctive’ and reflected the style of her performances more accurately. Her surname, Angelou, was a riff on her then-husband Tosh Angelos’ surname.
3. She was San Francisco’s first female African American cable car conductor
Aged 16, Angelou was desperate to get a job as a cable car conductor because, as she explained in a later interview with Oprah Winfrey, she ‘loved the uniforms’. To get the job, she went to the city office that hired cable car conductors and sat there reading Russian literature until they agreed to hire her.
Her mother warned her that as a black woman, she’d have to work harder and longer hours than her white colleagues. Her mother would get up with Angelou at 4am for her daybreak shifts, and would always follow her in the car with ‘her pistol on the passenger seat’ to keep an eye on her.
4. She spoke six languages
Angelou moved to New York in the late 1950s, and was encouraged by the Harlem Writers’ Guild to pursue her writing. Around the same time, she was cast in a production of Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess, which toured 22 countries in Europe and Africa. Angelou’s time in Europe gave her the chance to hear other languages, which she made a point of learning. She was eventually able to speak French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian and Fante (a dialect of Akan native to Ghana).
5. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was her first book
Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, explored her own experience with sexual trauma as a child. The book catapulted Angelou to fame, and while she noted that some places banned the book because of the rape scene, she believed that the book had saved lives because it made survivors of similar experiences feel less alone.
6. She won endless prestigious awards
Angelou was awarded many prestigious awards across a variety of mediums. She was the five time nominated, three time Grammy winner for her spoken word albums On The Pulse Of Morning, Phenomenal Woman and A Song Flung Up To Heaven. In 1971, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.
In 1973, she was nominated for a Tony Award for best Supporting or Featured Actress (Dramatic) for her role in Jerome Kilty’s 1972 play Look Away, despite the fact that the play closed on Broadway after only one performance. In 2011, three years before her death, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
7. She wrote the Inauguration poem for Bill Clinton
For the inauguration of former US President Bill Clinton in 1993, Angelou was invited to compose and deliver a poem. Angelou was the first poet since Robert Frost in 1961 to receive the honour, and recited the centuries-spanning epic ‘On the Pulse of Morning’. She earned a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album as a result in 1994.
8. She was married at least twice
The details that Angelou supplies about her life in her seven autobiographies and many interviews, speeches and articles are inconsistent. She claimed that she had been married at least twice, but never clarified the precise number ‘for fear of sounding frivolous’. However, according to her autobiographies, she married Tosh Angelos in 1951 and Paul du Feu in 1974, yet began her relationship with Vusumzi Make in 1961, though never married him. Aged 17, Angelou gave birth to her only child, a son called Guy, whose father was Tosh Angelos.
9. She was one of the first African-American female members of the Directors Guild of America
A woman of many talents, Angelou was also a filmmaker. She wrote the screenplay for Georgia Georgia (1972) and made her official directorial debut at 70 with Down in the Delta (1998). She joined the Directors Guild of America in 1975.
10. She died aged 86
After a period of ill health, Angelou died in 2014. At the time, she was working on another autobiography. Indeed, on her own mortality, Angelou stated, ‘I’ll probably be writing,’ she said, ‘when the Lord says, ‘Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time.’ On 7 June, a private memorial service was held at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. It was broadcast live on local radio stations, and featured speeches from her son Guy, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton.