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Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. After her parents divorce at the age of three, she went to live in Stamps, Arkansas with her grandmother. There she grew up under Jim Crow laws that legally enforced racial discrimination.
She was given the nickname Maya by her brother who had a stutter and could not pronounce her name. He called her My until he read a book on the Maya Indians and began calling her Maya. The name stuck.
More of Angelou’s defining experiences include being molested by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 7. After an uncle killed the perpetrator, Maya did not speak for five years. She also dropped out of school in her teens to become San Francisco’s first black female cable car conductor.
Angelou emerged from her humble beginnings as a young woman who sang, danced, and recorded poetry. After giving birth to her son, Guy, at the age of 17 and just weeks after graduating from high school, Angelou worked as a nightclub waitress, dabbled with drugs and prostitution, and danced at a strip club. While dancing at the strip club, Angelou was discovered by a theater group and auditioned for and won a role in an international tour of Porgy and Bess.
After completing the tour and moving to New York in 1959, Angelou became involved with the Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, she moved to Egypt with a boyfriend and later moved to Ghana after the relationship dissolved. Angelou stayed in Ghana for several years, and her experiences under the African cultural renaissance were an integral part of the author and leader she would become. It was during her stay in Ghana that she began corresponding with Malcolm X and saw their friendship flourish as Malcolm evolved from the racially polarized thinking of his younger days to the more inclusive vision that came with his maturity.
After returning to the United States, Angelou planned to help Malcolm X start the Organization of African American Unity, but he was assassinated soon after her arrival, on her birthday. She went on to serve as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and published the critically acclaimed autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou’s career as an author, teacher, and lecturer took off, and she published multiple volumes of poetry and autobiographies. In 1972, she wrote the screenplay and composed the score for Georgia, Georgia. She was the first African American woman to write a screenplay that was filmed, and she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her work.
Angelou also went on to serve in a myriad of capacities to Presidents of the United States, and in 1981 served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She made film appearances and directed multiple television programs and films including Down in the Delta.
Angelou’s published works include over 30 titles and include Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die, Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now, and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.
The doors opened by Angelou for both African Americans and woman will be a legacy that generations are and will continue to be grateful for.
Angelou will be remembered as a prolific author, poet, and leader who has given generations of black people the courage and voice to speak about their blackness, prompted a nation to consider the privilege of whiteness, and provided the inspiration for us all to poignantly tell our stories without shame.
One of her many famous pieces of poetry is entitled Still I Rise, and with her passing, it only seems fitting to print the following stanza to sum up her rise to fame from such humble beginnings:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Angelou published Mom & Me & Mom in 2013. The book is about her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter. Although Angelou’s relationship with her mother was a tumultuous one, when Angelou was 22 years old, Vivian told her something that changed her life forever. Check out the video below to see what it was.