Maya Angelou (born 1928)—author, poet, play wright, stage and screen performer, and director—is best known for her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), which recalls a young African American woman's discovery of her self-confidence.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Growing up in rural Stamps, Arkansas, with her brother, Bailey, she lived with her pious grandmother, who owned a general store. She attended public schools in Arkansas and California, and became San Francisco's first female streetcar conductor. Later she studied dance with Martha Graham and drama with Frank Silvera, and went on to a career in theater. She appeared in Porgy and Bess, which toured 22 countries; on Broadway in Look Away; and in several off-Broadway plays, including Cabaret for Freedom, which she wrote in collaboration with Godfrey Cambridge.
During the early 1960s, Angelou lived in Egypt, where she was the associate editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo. During this time, she also contributed articles to The Ghanaian Times and was featured on the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation programming in Accra. During the mid-1960s, she became assistant administrator of the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana. She was the feature editor of the African Review in Accra from 1964 to 1966. During this time she served as northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When she returned to the United States, Angelou worked as writer-producer for 20th Century-Fox Television, from which her full-length feature film Sisters, Sisters received critical acclaim. In addition, she wrote the screenplays Georgia, Georgia and All Day Long along with the television scripts for Sister, Sister and the series premiere of Brewster Place. She wrote, produced, and hosted the NET public broadcasting series Blacks! Blues! Black! Angelou also costarred in the motion picture How to Make an American Quilt in 1995.
Angelou has taught at several American colleges and universities, including the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Kansas, Wichita State University, and California State University at Sacramento. Since the early 1980s, she has been Reynolds Professor and writer-in-residence at Wake Forest University.
Angelou has been a prolific poet for decades. Her collections include Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die (1971); Oh Pray My Wings Are Going to Fit Me Well (1975); And Still I Rise (1976), which was produced as a choreo-poem on Off-Broadway in 1979; and Shaker, Why Don't You Sing (1983) Poems: Maya Angelou (1986); Life Doesn't Frighten Me, illustrated by celebrated New York artist Jean Michel Basquiat (1993); On the Pulse of the Morning (1993), recited at Bill Clinton's first Presidential Inauguration; Soul Looks Back in Wonder (1994); and I Shall Not Be Moved (1997), her first book of poetry in over 10 years.
Angelou's poetry is fashioned almost entirely of short lyrics and jazzy rhythms. Although her poetry has contributed to her reputation and is especially popular among young people, most commentators reserve their highest praise for her prose. Angelou's dependence on alliteration, her heavy use of short lines, and her conventional vocabulary has led several critics to declare her poetry superficial and devoid of her celebrated humor. Other reviewers, however, praise her poetic style as refreshing and graceful. They also laud Angelou for addressing social and political issues relevant to African Americans and for challenging the validity of traditional American values and myths. For example, Angelou directed national attention to humanitarian concerns with her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning," which she recited at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. In this poem, Angelou calls for recognition of the human failings pervading American history and an renewed national commitment to unity and social improvement.
Although Angelou began her literary career as a poet, she is well known for her five autobiographical works, which depict sequential periods of her life. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) is about Marguerite Johnson and her brother Bailey growing up in Arkansas. It chronicles Angelou's life up to age sixteen, providing a child's perspective of the perplexing world of adults. Although her grandmother instilled pride and confidence in her, her self-image was shattered when she was raped at the age of eight by her mother's boyfriend. Angelou was so devastated by the attack that she refused to speak for approximately five years. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings concludes with Angelou having regained self-esteem and caring for her newborn son, Guy. In addition to being a trenchant account of an African American girl's coming-of-age, this work affords insights into the social and political tensions of the 1930s. Sidonie Ann Smith echoed many critics when she wrote: "Angelou's genius as a writer is her ability to recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary and especially in its process of image-making."
Her next autobiographical work, Gather Together in My Name, (1974) covers the period immediately after the birth of her son Guy and depicts her valiant struggle to care for him as a single parent. Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976) describes Angelou's stage debut and concludes with her return from the international tour of Porgy and Bess. The Heart of A Woman (1981) portrays the mature Angelou becoming more comfortable with her creativity and her success. All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) recalls her four-year stay in Ghana.
Widely celebrated by popular audiences and critics, Angelou has a long roster of recognitions, including: a nomination for National Book Award, 1970, for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; a Yale University fellowship, 1970; a Pulitzer Prize nomination, 1972, for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie; an Antoinette Perry ("Tony" ) Award nomination from League of New York Theatres and Producers, 1973, for performance in Look Away; Rockefeller Foundation scholar in Italy, 1975; honorary degrees from Smith College, 1975, Mills College, 1975, Lawrence University, 1976, and Wake Forest University, 1977; a Tony Award nomination for best supporting actress, 1977, for Roots; and the North Carolina Award in Literature, 1987. In the 1970s she was appointed to the Bicentennial Commission by President Gerald Ford, and the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year by Jimmy Carter. She was also named Woman of the Year in Communications by Ladies' Home Journal, 1976; and named one of the top one hundred most influential women by Ladies' Home Journal, 1983.
Angelou's autobiographical works have an important place in the African American tradition of personal narrative, and they continue to garner praise for their honesty and moving sense of dignity. Although an accomplished poet and dramatist, Angelou is dedicated to the art of autobiography. Angelou explained that she is "not afraid of the ties [between past and present]. I cherish them, rather. It's the vulnerability … it's allowing oneself to be hypnotized. That's frightening because we have no defenses, nothing. We've slipped down the well and every side is slippery. And how on earth are you going to come out? That's scary. But I've chosen it, and I've chosen this mode as my mode."
Further Reading on Maya Angelou
For biographical information, see the following periodical pieces: "The African-American Scholar Interviews: Maya Angelou," in the African-American Scholar (January/February 1977); "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in Ebony (April 1970); and Mary Helen Washington, "Their Fiction Becomes Our Reality," in African-American World (August 1974). For critical information see: Estelle C. Jelinek, "In Search of the African-American Female Self: African-American Women's Autobiographies and Ethnicity," in Women's Autobiography (1980); Claudia Tate, African-American Women Writers at Work (1983); Carol E. Neubauer, "Displacement and Autobiographical Style in Maya Angelou's The Heart of a Woman," in African-American Literature Forum (1983); and Mari Evans, "Maya Angelou" in African-American Women Writers, 1950-1980 (1983).
Additional information can be found in "Maya-ness is Next to Godliness," in GQ (July 1995) and "Maya Angelou: A Celebrated Poet Issues a Call to Arms to the Nation's Artists," in Mother Jones (May/June 1995).