Angelou, Maya (1928—)

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Angelou, Maya (1928—)

African-American author, actress, and dancer. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri; daughter of Bailey and Vivian Baxter Johnson (divorced 1931); married Tosh Angelos (an ex-sailor), around 1950 (divorced around 1952); married Vusumzi Make (a South African freedom fighter), around 1960 (divorced 1963); married Paul Du Feu (a builder and writer), 1973 (divorced around 1981); children: Guy Johnson.

Selected works:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970); Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie (1971); Gather Together in My Name (1974); Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975); Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976); And Still I Rise (1978); The Heart of a Woman (1981); Shaker Why Don't You Sing (1983); All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986); (with Tom Feeling) Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987); I Shall Not Be Moved (1990); On the Pulse of Morning (1993); Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993).

While growing up in the racist South of the 1930s, eight-year-old Maya Angelou stopped speaking for five years after she was brutalized by her mother's boyfriend. During her silence, she came to understand the importance of words and to love writing. She played many roles, both on and off stage, before her autobiography Why the Caged Bird Sings brought her to the fore of American literature and consciousness. On January 20, 1993, Angelou, now a teacher and poet, was called upon to deliver an inaugural poem intended to characterize the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton and a renewed American attitude. To the ears of millions, she raised the unmistakable Angelou voice and read "On the Pulse of Morning," including the lines:

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, the second child of Bailey and Vivian Johnson , in St. Louis, Missouri. She was soon called Maya, her brother Bailey's version of "mine" or "my sister." The Johnsons' marriage was stormy, and when Maya was three she and four-year-old Bailey were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live

with their grandmother Annie Henderson . Though her grandmother owned a grocery store, the family lived in a segregated shanty area and thought white people were "ghosts." At age eight, Maya made her first visit to her mother in St. Louis. While there, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend, and he was lynched the following day. Maya returned to her grandmother shattered and silent; she refused to talk, other than to Bailey, for the next five years. During this time, said Angelou, she learned the value of words and came to adore writing.

In 1940, after Maya had graduated from the Lafayette County Training School, her grandmother shipped the siblings to San Francisco, where their mother had relocated, remarried and become a professional gambler. Coming from a devoutly religious and quiet life in Stamps, they found San Francisco and the family there jubilant and loud. Maya was enrolled at Mission High School. By the time of her graduation in 1945, she was the mother of a boy named Guy whose father was a neighbor's son. To support Guy, Maya moved out of her mother's home and took various jobs around San Francisco. She was the city's first black streetcar toll-taker and conductor, but also made ends meet with work as a Creole cook, a prostitute, a singer, and a dancer. In the early 1950s, she met a white ex-sailor, Tosh Angelos, who managed a record store. Angelos provided an isolated and sheltered environment for Maya and her son. For several years, she stayed at home and wrote, tended to her child, and "recovered," as she called it, from the difficulties of her life. When she felt well enough to face the world again, she divorced Angelos to gain her freedom.

Angelou was selected to study dance with dancer-choreographer Pearl Primus in 1952, and later with Martha Graham and Ann Halprin . Throughout the 1950s and '60s, she worked in nightclubs and with stage shows, including the touring company of Porgy and Bess, which took her across America and Europe. She lived in New York and interacted with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., which led to her post from 1960 to 1961 as the northern coordinator for King's Southern Christian Leadership Council. Still looking for a place that felt like home, Angelou headed for Africa. There she met Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter and politician, after a week's courtship, the two married. Because Africa was neither safe for, nor politically welcoming to, Make, they lived primarily in Europe, but by 1963 their marriage had collapsed and Angelou moved on to Ghana. She served as a writer and editor for the Ghanian Times and the African Review, and as an assistant administrator for the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana in Legon-Accra. The experience of "returning home," as she referred to her time in Ghana, nurtured Angelou. She raised her language proficiencies to six, wrote and developed several dramatic projects, including Black, Blues, Black, a ten-part television series on African traditions in America, which Angelou brought with her back to the States in 1966 (the series was produced in 1968). Angelou returned in part to work with Malcolm X, but their association was never to come to fruition. Two days after she arrived in New York, she spoke with him on the phone. The next day, he was assassinated. The event marked the end of an era and with it Angelou's political involvement. The political arena, she determined, was too crazy.

Maya Angelou">

I decided many years ago to invent myself. I had obviously been invented by someone else—by a whole society—and I didn't like their invention.

—Maya Angelou

Before Angelou left New York for California, where she would join the Theatre of Being in Hollywood, she had dinner with Jules and Judy Feiffer and her friend, writer James Baldwin. The four drank scotch late into the night and told stories, including much of Angelou's life history. The following morning, Judy Feiffer called Robert Loomis, an editor at Random House, and recommended that the story of Angelou's life be published. Initially, Angelou rejected Loomis' interest in her autobiography. In an effort to win Angelou, he told her that she probably wouldn't be up to the writing involved. Angelou did not refuse the challenge. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the prestigious National Book Award, and Angelou's literary career was launched. In 1971, her first volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie, was published and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She became the first black woman to have an original screenplay produced (Georgia, Georgia in 1972) and made her Broadway acting debut the following year in Look Away, which brought her a 1973 Tony nomination.

Angelou's literary and dramatic prominence earned her teaching posts and residency-fellowships at the University of Kansas, Yale, and Wake Forest, among others. She made her home in California, where she married the writer and former builder Paul Du Feu. Angelou used her popularity to advocate on behalf of feminist and race issues, and was recognized by several presidents with posts to committees and organizations. From volumes of interviews, her honed public persona emerged: tough, determined, loving. She largely reserves herself from political discussions, which she regards as less fruitful than examinations of people and their passions. She considers herself less a black advocate than a people advocate.

In 1982, when she was offered the Reynolds Chair at Wake Forest University, Angelou moved to North Carolina having "worn out" both the state of California and her marriage. The Reynolds Chair is a lifetime post that allows her the freedom to travel, lecture, and write, which she does in bursts of total absorption. When writing, Angelou is known to work in hotel rooms in which she keeps no reading material other than the Bible. Her works include five autobiographies, five collections of poetry, and a book of essays, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, which she calls "some lessons in living, which I had learned over many years."


Angelou, Maya. On the Pulse of Morning. NY: Random House, 1993.

——. Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. NY: Random House, 1993.

Davidson, Cathy N., and Linda Wagner-Martin, eds. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the U.S. NY: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations With Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Page, James A. Selected Black American Authors. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts