Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. At the age of eight she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was subsequently beaten to death by a mob after Angelou testified against him. “My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” Angelou later recalled.
In 1941 Angelou won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School, but she dropped out at age 14 to take a job as a cable-car conductor. She later returned to finish high school, and gave birth to her son just a few weeks after graduation. In her late teens, Angelou spent time working as both a prostitute and madam.
In subsequent years, Angelou established a reputation as a skilled actress and dancer. In the mid to late 1950s, the Harlem Writers’ Guild helped her develop her literary talents. Angelou also participated extensively in the civil-rights movement, helping Malcolm X build his Organization of African American Unity and serving as northern coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In the early 1960s, Angelou championed Fidel Castro‘s rise to power in Cuba. Her first published story appeared in the Cuban periodical Revolucion. In September 1960, she was deeply moved by the sight of Castro’s exuberantly warm public embrace of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in New York, where both men were attending a United Nations session. “The Russians were O.K.,” Angelou later reminisced. “Of course, Castro never had called himself white, so he was O.K. from the git. Anyhow … as black people often said, ‘Wasn’t no Communist country that put my grandpappa in slavery. Wasn’t no Communist lynched my poppa or raped my mamma.’”
Also in the early Sixties, Angelou supported the anti-South African apartheid movement and worked as a journalist and editor in Egypt and Ghana.
In the 1970s, Angelou was a political supporter of the Communists Bettina Aptheker and Angela Davis. Angelou praised Aptheker’s 1975 book, The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis, as follows: “This book, written so beautifully, is on the face of it, Bettina Aptheker’s story of the movement to free Angela Davis. That is the fact. The truth is deeper. Painful. Beautiful. Cry-making. It is a story of love. Love of people for people. Adults for children. And overall, more than human desire for freedom, the unquestionable human need for it. It is that truth that brought millions of people together to set Angela Davis free. Bettina Aptheker’s understanding and support of that truth, her poetry and strength, set the readers on a loving quest for their own freedom.” And Angelou and Davis both spoke at a launch party for Aptheker’s book at San Jose State University — an event that was arranged by local Communist Party comrades.
As the years and decades passed, Angelou gained enormous renown for her writing. She authored seven autobiographies—most famously, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)—as well as several collections of essays, theatrical works, and volumes of poetry. In 1993, at the request of president-elect Bill Clinton, Angelou composed an original poem, titled “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which she read at Clinton’s inauguration.
In 1995 Angelou recited a poem at the Million Man March organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. That same year, she lent her support to the convicted cop-killer and former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Indeed, Angelou joined such luminaries as Alec Baldwin, Derrick Bell, Noam Chomsky, Spike Lee, and Norman Mailer in signing a full-page New York Times ad advocating a new trial for Abu-Jamal.
In a 1997 interview, Angelou lamented: “A black person grows up in this country — and in many places — knowing that racism will be as familiar as salt to the tongue.” Reasoning from that premise, she lauded affirmative action and Head Start as programs that were not only “good for the country” but quite necessary—because, she said, “the playing field” had been “terribly unlevel, terribly unfair for centuries.” In the same interview, Angelou was asked if she thought “our free-market system—capitalism itself—creates divisions and inequality,” to which she replied: “Yes. Absolutely. Unfortunately, I can’t find many other ‘isms’ that don’t do the same thing.”
In 1998 Angelou issued a public service announcement in support of a National Council of Churches campaign to persuade the U.S. Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol as a means of combating global warming.
In 2001 President Bill Clinton, shortly before leaving office, appointed Angelou to the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In 2002 Angelou launched a line of greeting cards with the Hallmark Company.
In March 2006 Angelou delivered a video statement to the attendees at a New York City event honoring the late Rachel Corrie, an American anti-Israel activist who had been accidentally killed while trying to block an Israeli anti-terror operation in 2003. Angelou praised Corrie as a “peace lover” who possessed exceptional “courage.” Others who spoke at the New York gathering included Anthony Arnove, Huwaida Arraf, Eve Ensler, Hedy Epstein, Amy Goodman, Vanessa Redgrave, Ora Wise, Howard Zinn, and James Zogby.
During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Angelou initially threw her support behind Hillary Clinton, saying: “I know the kind of president Hillary Clinton will be because I know the person she is. I am inspired by her courage and her honesty. She is a reliable and trustworthy person. She is someone I not only admire but one for whom I have profound affection.” In January 2008, Angelou wrote a poem in honor of Mrs. Clinton. The poet eventually shifted her allegiance to Barack Obama, however, when the latter emerged as the Democratic nominee. A few days before Obama’s inauguration, Angelou told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she would be watching the event on television “somewhere between crying and praying and being grateful and laughing when I see faces I know.”
Four years later, Angelou passionately supported Obama’s re-election bid, saying: “I think he has done a remarkable job, knowing how much he has been opposed…. Every suggestion he makes, the Republicans en masse fight against him or don’t vote at all.” In a campaign email she authored on Obama’s behalf, Angelou stated: “[S]ince President Barack Obama’s historic election, we’ve moved forward in courageous and beautiful ways. More students can afford college, and more families have access to affordable health insurance. Women have greater opportunities to get equal pay for equal work.”
As the 2012 presidential election neared, Angelou predicted that Obama’s detractors would inevitably give voice to their own inner racism: “I tell you we are going to see some nastiness, some vulgarity, I think. They’ll pull the sheets off.” In a 2012 interview with activist and MSNBC television host Al Sharpton, Angelou derided Obama’s critics as “stupid,” “thick,” and “dense” people “who want to continue to keep us polarized.”
In July 2013 Angelou spoke out about the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic man who had shot and killed a black Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin in a high-profile 2012 altercation. Lamenting that the jury verdict showed “how far we have to go” as a nation vis-a-vis racial matters, Angelou said that the many protests which were being held on behalf of the dead teen were reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Though she never attended college, Angelou was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees and was named the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in 1982. She received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her 1971 book of poetry, titled Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’ fore I Die. She received two NAACP Image Awards for her books: Halleluiah! The Welcome Table (2005), and Letter to my Daughter (2009). And she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.
Angelou died of natural causes on May 28, 2014.