On April 4, 1928, Marguerite Ann Johnson, known to the world as Maya Angelou, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Due to her parents’ tumultuous marriage and subsequent divorce, Angelou went to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas at an early age. Her older brother, Bailey, gave Angelou her nickname “Maya.”
Returning to her mother’s care briefly at the age of seven, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. He was later jailed and then killed when released from jail. Believing that her confession of the trauma had a hand in the man’s death, Angelou became mute for six years. During her mutism and into her teens, she again lived with her grandmother in Arkansas.
Angelou’s interest in the written word and the English language was evident from an early age. Throughout her childhood, she wrote essays, poetry, and kept a journal. When she returned to Arkansas, she took an interest in poetry and memorized works by Shakespeare and Poe.
Angelou was also noted for her talents as a singer and dancer, particularly in the calypso and cabaret styles. In the 1950s, she performed professionally in the US, Europe, and northern Africa, and sold albums of her recordings.
In 1950, African American writers in New York City formed the Harlem Writers Guild to nurture and support the publication of Black authors. Angelou joined the Guild in 1959. She also became active in the Civil Rights Movement and served as the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a prominent African American advocacy organization
In 1969, Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography of her early life. Her tale of personal strength amid childhood trauma and racism resonated with readers and was nominated for the National Book Award. Many schools sought to ban the book for its frank depiction of sexual abuse, but it is credited with helping other abuse survivors tell their stories. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been translated into numerous languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide. Angelou eventually published six more autobiographies, culminating in 2013’s Mom & Me & Mom.
She was recognized by many organizations both nationally and internationally for her contributions to literature. In 1981, Wake Forest University offered Angelou the Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. President Clinton awarded Angelou the National Medal of Arts in 2000. In 2012, she was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Wake Forest University Writers Hall of Fame. The following year, she received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for outstanding service to the American literary community. Angelou also gave many commencement speeches and was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees in her lifetime.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. It was a fitting recognition for Angelou’s remarkable and inspiring career in the arts.