Essays

Who Was Maya Angelou?: Remembering A Visionary

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Maya Angelou was an inspirational and unforgettable public figure who wore many hats in her storied lifetime. She was a poet, a memoirist, an activist, a playwright, a dancer, a singer, an actress, a mother, and so much more.

Angelou is probably best known for her series of autobiographies that chronicle the story of her life, starting with the critically acclaimed classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was first released in 1969. To this day, this book is regarded as a stunning and unparalleled work that completely changed the way readers looked at autobiography and memoir. Angelou’s work gave voice to the struggles of not just herself but others — especially other Black women — who have gone through similar experiences but had never heard their stories told with such honesty before.

Maya Angelou was also a celebrated Civil Rights Activist, working with prominent leaders including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Throughout her long life, Angelou was a vocal advocate for progress and creating equal opportunities for Black people in America.

Even after Angelou’s death on May 28, 2014, her inspiring words resonate with people of all ages, from all backgrounds, all across the world. She’s a well-known figure, and there is probably a lot you know about this amazing woman already. Still, Angelou was able to accomplish and experience so much in her lifetime that there’s plenty about her that might surprise you. So who really was Maya Angelou? Here’s a look at her life, her story, and her legacy.

The Early Life of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Anne Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the daughter of Bailey Johnson, a dietitian and cook who fought in WWI and then returned to the U.S. to become a doorman in Los Angeles. Her mother was Vivian Baxter, whom Angelou described in her book Mom & Me & Mom as “a startling beauty.”

Angelou also had an older brother, Bailey Jr., who became her fierce protector. Bailey is the one who nicknamed his little sister “Maya.” Angelou explained in the PBS documentary And Still I Rise that the name derived from “my sister,” but when Bailey said it, it sounded like “Maya sister.” Eventually, he shortened it to “Maya.”

When Maya Angelou was only 3 years old and her brother only 4, their parents separated and sent their children off to live in Stamps, Arkansas, with their grandmother. Angelou and her brother traveled alone, wearing tags to tell others who they belonged to and where they were going. The move was heartbreaking for both children. In an interview for And Still I Rise, Angelou said it was so horrible she pretended her mother was dead so she wouldn’t have to long for her. She said her brother never fully recovered from it.

Angelou recalled these early years living with her paternal grandmother Annie Henderson (Momma) and their Uncle Willie in her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Momma ran a general store, and their Uncle Willie drilled into the children the importance of a good education. But life was far from perfect for this newly formed family unit. White people constantly disrespected Momma, and Uncle Willie often had to hide in his own home from the KKK.

Four years after Angelou and her brother were sent to Stamps, their father returned for them and took them to live with their mother and her family in St. Louis.

Maya Angelou’s Years of Silence

In St. Louis, Angelou once again found herself under the spell of her beautiful, well-educated, and charismatic mother. The only problem was that she wasn’t the only one. Angelou said that Freeman, Vivian’s boyfriend at the time, “was intoxicated with my mother. In his rage and his inability to control her and have her when he wanted her, he raped me. I was 7.”

Freeman warned Angelou not to tell anyone about the assault, but she told her brother, and Bailey told the rest of the family. Freeman was found guilty of sexually assaulting Angelou, but he remained in prison for the crime for only one day. After his day in prison, Freeman was released. But his freedom was short-lived. Four days after his release, he was murdered.

Following the incident with Freeman, Angelou became mute for several years. “My 7-year-old logic told me my voice had killed the man,” she explained. “so I stopped speaking for five years.”

According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote the biography Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration, it was during these years of silence that Angelou was able to develop a keen ability to listen to others and observe the world around her. Angelou described envisioning her body as one big ear that could take in the world around her. During this time, she also developed a great love for books and literature, and the ability to memorize most of what she read and observed.

When Angelou was 8 and her brother 9, they were sent back to live in Stamps with their grandmother. There, Angelou became close with a friend of the family named Mrs. Bertha Flowers. Mrs. Flowers would make cookies and lemonade for Angelou and invite her over to read poetry. After several years of this, Angelou says Mrs. Flowers refused to read any more poetry to her, claiming, “Maya, you don’t like poetry. You’ll never like it until you speak it.” So finally, Angelou says she took the books of poetry, and “I went under the house…and I tried poetry.” Through reading poetry, Angelou was able to find the courage to speak again.

Maya Angelou’s Teen Years

When Angelou was 14 and Bailey was 15, they moved to Oakland, California, to live with their mother again.

At the age of 16, Maya Angelou became the first Black woman to conduct a cable car in San Francisco. In an interview with Oprah in 2013, Angelou recalled “I saw women on the street cars with their little changer belts. They had caps with bibs on them and form-fitting jackets. I loved their uniforms. I said that is the job I want.”

Something else monumental happened to Angelou at the age of 16: she became pregnant. Angelou called the birth of her son Guy the “greatest blessing of her life.” When Maya Angelou told her mother that she was pregnant, Vivian welcomed the baby boy into their lives, offering advice and guidance, but never judgment.

When Guy was only 2 months old, Angelou moved out on her own. Before she left home, her mother said to her, “Remember this: when you cross my doorstep, you have already been raised. With what you have learned from your grandmother in Arkansas and what you’ve learned from me, you know the difference between right and wrong. Do right. Don’t anybody raise you from the way you have been raised…and remember this: You can always come home.”

Angelou’s Early Career and Early Adulthood

Despite her mother’s objections and despite the general condemnation of interracial relationships at the time, Maya Angelou married a white man in 1951. Tosh Angelos was a Greek sailor Angelou met while working at a record shop in San Francisco.

Angelos was an atheist and Maya Angelou was very spiritual, so their marriage did not last long. But one lasting thing Angelou kept from the marriage was her last name. Before Angelos, Maya Angelou went by the name Rita Johnson, but when her singing and dancing career started to take off, she took on the stage name Maya Angelou.

In the mid to late 1950s, Angelou gained a moderate amount of fame through Calypso singing and dancing, which was very popular at the time. 1957, Angelou recorded her calypso album, Miss Calypso, and she also appeared in the film Calypso Heat Wave.

Angelou’s early career had her touring the world, but it meant that she spent a lot of time away from her son Guy. But then Angelou was offered an opportunity: a role as the understudy for Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly! The role would have meant Angelou would be able to stay in New York with her son, and it would have meant steady money.

However, Angelou would not end up landing the role. “The director and the producer both loved her,” Angelou’s son Guy Johnson said. “But Pearl Bailey came back and said ‘Oh no — I ain’t gonna have this big old ugly girl be my understudy.'” Johnson said this was one of the few times he remembers seeing his mother cry, “because this meant she had to go back on the road and find other work. It was devastating because I knew all the sacrifices my mother made to keep me.”

The Activism and Early Writing of Maya Angelou

In 1959, Angelou moved to New York to focus on her writing career. There, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, met with many other influential Black authors, and was published for the first time.

In 1960, Angelou met Martin Luther King Jr., and she recalled feeling like his message of non-violence was like “pouring water on a parched desert.” Angelou said, “He reminded me of brother. Small, beautiful speaking voice…he became my big brother. I became a little girl again.”

After hearing King speak, Angelou helped to organize Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The revue was a big success, with famous Black celebrities like Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Lorraine Hansberry in attendance on opening night.

In the 1960s, Angelou also became a vocal anti-apartheid activist and became the only woman editor of the Arab Observer newspaper. Additionally, Angelou has marched for women’s rights and advocated for marriage equality.

During the ’60s, Angelou lived in Accra, Ghana, where she became close friends with Malcolm X. In 1965, Angelou came back to the United States to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly afterward, in that same year, Malcolm X was assassinated. Angelou said that for a time after his death, she fell into mutism again.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

When Random House editor Robert Loomis first approached Maya Angelou with the idea of writing an autobiography, Angelou balked at the idea. But after a dinner party with her friend James Baldwin, she was inspired to write the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which has since become a classic. The book, which was published in 1969, was met with critical acclaim and brought Angelou international recognition.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which chronicles the first 16 years of Angelou’s life, became an instant bestseller. According to Gillespie, “Readers, especially women, and in particular Black women, took the book to heart.” The book has been translated into multiple language and has never been out of print.

Of the significance of the book, American poet and academic Eugene B. Redmond said, “Here’s a black woman who takes off the cuffs. Here’s a black woman who writes her story. It was a very important literary feat because it says it’s okay for a black woman to say what happened to her in public, in literary form.”

Maya Angelou’s Later Career and Life

Through the remaining years of Maya Angelou’s life, biographer Marcia Ann Gillespie said, “She had accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime.” Angelou’s film Georgia, Georgia was released in 1972. It was the first produced screenplay by a Black woman. Angelou also continued acting during this time, landing a supporting role in the television miniseries Roots.

In the late 1970s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey for the first time. At the time, Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore. Over the years, the two would grow close, and Winfrey considered Angelou a close friend and mentor. “She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life,” Winfrey said of Angelou. “The world knows her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her.”

In 1993, Maya Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. She was only the second poet to recite a poem at an inauguration, the first being Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. A recording of the poem won a Grammy Award.

Throughout Angelou’s career, the author wrote seven autobiographies in total. Gather Together in My Name was published in 1974 and follows Angelou, then called Rita, from the ages of 17 to 19 (1944–48). Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas was published in 1976. Set between 1949 and 1955, the book tells the story of Angelou’s early 20s. In 1981, Angelou published The Heart of a Woman, which recalls the events in her life between 1957 and 1962, including raising her teen son and traveling to Cairo and Ghana. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes was published in 1986 and looks at the time Angelou spent in Ghana in her 30s. A Song Flung Up to Heaven is set between 1965 and 1968 and was published in 2002. Angelou’s final autobiography, Mom & Me & Mom, was published shortly before her 85th birthday in 2013. The book focuses on Angelou’s relationship with her mother Vivian Baxter.

The Death of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou died on May 28th, 2014, age 86. During her funeral service at Wake Forest University, her son Guy Johnson said, “The last ten years of her life were a struggle of pain…but she continued her life with drive, enthusiasm, and grace, completing four or more books in the last ten years…Now we are ready to celebrate her life. There is no mourning here. We have added to the population of angels, and she has left each one of us with something in our heart. Her body of work, from her public appearances to her published works, speak to the commonality of all humankind. She was a voice for equality, justice, and love.”

Following her friend and mentor’s death, Oprah Winfrey said, “[Maya Angelou] moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. I loved her and I know she loved me. I will profoundly miss her. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”

In her speech honoring Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama said, “She taught us that we are each wonderfully made, intricately woven, and put on this Earth for a purpose far greater than we could ever imagine. And when I think about Maya Angelou, I think about the affirming power of her words.”

Maya Angelou’s Legacy and Influence

Maya Angelou remains an important literary figure, and her works have influenced many. When Angelou first published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she revolutionized the autobiography genre. Writer Julian Mayfield called Angelou’s book “a work of art which eludes description because the black aesthetic—another way of saying ‘the black experience’—has too long been neglected to be formalized by weary clichés.”

Angelou’s writings also helped invigorate the Black feminist movement and “was an important contribution to the wave of Black feminist writing in the seventies,” according to New Yorker writer Hilton Als.

When Amanda Gorman recited a poem at Joe Biden’s inauguration in 2021, the poet laureate’s work was compared to that of Maya Angelou’s, and indeed Gorman has named Angelou as an influence. In an interview with Oprah, Gorman said she grew up with a speech impediment, and so reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and learning about Angelou’s own issues with speech was “an amazing discovery.”

But Maya Angelou has inspired — and continues to inspire — artists across several disciplines. Beyoncé famously uses a portion of a Maya Angelou interview in her Netflix documentary Homecoming. And Rihanna, who said she read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a teenager, tweeted about Angelou, “She made us feel so safe, safe enough to trust her wisdom! Wisdom one can usually only acquire through experience!”

In April 2022 when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson gave a speech to mark her Supreme Court confirmation and become the first Black female Supreme Court Justice, she quotes Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” saying that she too was “the dream and the hope of the slave.”

Maya Angelou was a true visionary whose words of strength, justice, and love will not soon be forgotten.


If you’re interested in reading more to celebrate the words and wisdom of Maya Angelou, you won’t want to miss these Maya Angelou Quotes.

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