April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014
Notable: Author & Poet
Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri the second child produced by the marriage of Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson Sr. The marriage ended when Johnson was three years old and she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas. Johnson would spend most of the rest of her childhood being raised by her grandmother. Older than her by one year, Johnson’s brother Bailey was her childhood companion and gave her the nickname “Maya”. Despite the town’s racism, the siblings experienced stability in their grandmother’s home.
The pair occasionally returned to St. Louis to spend time with their mother. It was during one of those visits when Johnson was around the age of seven or eight years old that she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Confiding in her brother, he told their family what happened which led to the man’s trial and conviction. But the man was found dead shortly thereafter and Johnson believed that her uncles had murdered him in retaliation. Traumatized by the rape and misguidedly feeling that her words were responsible for the man’s death, Johnson stopped talking. Frustrated, Johnson’s mother sent her back to her grandmother in Arkansas where she would spend the next five years mostly mute.
Johnson’s rape and its aftermath had sparked her fear in the power of her words. But she also nurtured a deep respect for and interest in words throughout her childhood that continued despite her muteness. Johnson was an avid writer, journaler, and reader paying special attention to Black Harlem Renaissance authors as well as Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe. At the age of 12, Johnson met an educated Black woman, Mrs. Flowers, who helped her overcome her muteness while introducing her to spoken word and poetry.
In her early teens, Johnson relocated to Oakland, California to live with her mother and enrolled at George Washington High School. She also took classes in the arts such as dance and drama at the California Labor School. After showing up for weeks to request an application and then lying about her age, Johnson procured a job as San Francisco’s first Black woman streetcar conductor. After a semester in the position, she decided to return to school. Unfortunately, a teenage tryst with a neighborhood boy resulted in Johnson becoming pregnant and she gave birth to what would be her only child, Clyde Bailey (Guy) Johnson, around the time she graduated from high school.
Over the next few years, Johnson would work a variety of jobs to support herself and her son. They included cook, cocktail waitress, prostitute, madam, and stripper. (Quite the resume.) Johnson’s time as a dancer would have a tremendous impact on the direction of her life. It was during that time that she began using the name “Maya” and adopted the surname “Angelou”, a variation on the last name of a Greek man to whom she was briefly married. Standing six feet tall and performing under the name “Maya Angelou” she branched out to dancing and singing calypso music, moving back and forth between New York City and San Francisco. Angelou spent a year in the mid-1950s on an international tour as a member of a production of Porgy and Bess and later released a solo album.
In 1959, Angelou settled in New York City and joined the Harlem Writers Guild with aspirations to become a poet and playwright. Hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak motivated her to become active in the Civil Rights Movement. Angelou joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to serve as the SCLC’s northern coordinator. In that role, she organized and starred in a musical benefit to raise funds for the organization and its work.
Two years later, Angelou relocated to Egypt with her South African boyfriend (or husband, sources vary) who was also an activist. While there she joined The Arab Observer as the magazine’s associate editor. When the relationship ended, Angelou once again relocated, this time to Accra, Ghana where she found work at The African Review. Unfortunately, her son was involved in a very serious car accident and they had to remain in Ghana while he recuperated. Their time in Ghana coincided with the literary and cultural renaissance that was taking place as several African countries achieved freedom from European colonists. These experiences also influenced Angelou’s writing.
Upon her return to America, Angelou settled in New York City where she began assisting Malcolm X with establishing the Organization of Afro-American Unity but it floundered after his assassination. It was around this time that her friend James Baldwin and an editor at Random House, Robert Loomis, successfully persuaded Angelou to write a book about her life experiences.
She had initially rejected the idea but eventually accepted the challenge and penned what would become I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Covering the first 17 years of her life and ending shortly after the birth of her son, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was an immediate success upon its release in 1969. It would be followed up by six additional volumes of memoirs along with four books of poetry.
In addition to receiving critical acclaim as an author and poet, Angelou also scored a Tony nomination for a single performance in a Broadway show. Angelou would occasionally appear in movies and television shows throughout the rest of her life. One of her most notable roles was appearing in Roots as Kunta Kinte’s grandmother for which she earned an Emmy nod. Angelou also made her mark behind the scenes as the first Black woman to have her screenplay be produced as a film (Georgia, Georgia 1972) and made her directorial debut with Down in the Delta (1998).
Angelou received many awards for her literature and poetry in addition to more than 30 honorary degrees. Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, after a period of frail health and heart issues.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Maya Angelou.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. May 10, 2021. https://www.biography.com/writer/maya-angelou.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2021. “Maya Angelou.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 24, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Maya-Angelou.
- Fox, Margalit. 2014. “Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South, Dies at 86.” The New York Times. The New York Times. May 28, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/arts/maya-angelou-lyrical-witness-of-the-jim-crow-south-dies-at-86.html.
- “Maya Angelou.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/maya-angelou.
- Spring, Kelly A. n.d. “Biography: Maya Angelou.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/maya-angelou.
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