Maya Angelou: Life, Biography, And Stories About The Literary Titan

Maya Angelou circa 1970. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou was a titan of the American literary world. An expert in prose, poetry, and academic writing, she exemplified modern storytelling in exquisite narrative while also providing her audience a historical account of what it was like to be a young black girl in the early 1900s.

As a teenager, Angelou showed her tenacity when she applied to be a streetcar driver. Though initially turned away, she sat outside the hiring office every day for two weeks. When asked why she wanted the job so badly, she simply responded, "I like the uniforms. I like people." In 1944, the 16-year-old became the first black woman to drive a streetcar in all of San Francisco.

Most of Angelou's time in Africa was spent in Accra, Ghana, shown here in 2008. (Elegant Machines/Wikimedia Commons)

For much of her life, Angelou labored in jobs that paid little but learned acting, singing, and dancing. She also delved into her African roots, which brought her to Ghana, where she worked as a freelance writer. By 1968, she found herself again in America, where she wrote her most famous work, the semi-autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a dark but ultimately triumphant tale of a woman struggling with sexual abuse, racism, and trauma who develops an inner strength that takes her from victim to survivor.

Angelou excelled again with poems like "Still I Rise," "Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well," and "I Shall Not Be Moved." Her literary talent is especially remarkable because she was nonverbal as a child, a reaction to the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a man who was later killed, likely by her family. "I thought my voice killed him," she later explained. "I killed that man because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again because my voice would kill anyone." She didn't speak for nearly five years, between the ages of eight and thirteen.

Angelou at York College in February 2013. (York College ISLGP/Wikimedia Commons)

Angelou went on to write seven semi-fictional autobiographies, a genre somewhat unique to her, meaning it can often be difficult to parse the truth with regards to her personal life (for example, how many times she's been married). She published her last book in 2013 at the age of 85.

Angelou has received numerous awards, from Tony and Grammy Awards to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given to her by President Barack Obama in 2010 for overall contributions to the field of literature. He wasn't the first president to honor her, either: In 1993, she was invited to President Bill Clinton's inauguration, where she recited "On The Pulse of the Morning." She died on May 24, 2014 of undetermined causes.

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