Writer, dancer, African-American activist. Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou spent her difficult formative years moving back and forth between her mother’s and grandmother’s. At age eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was subsequently killed by her uncles. The event caused the young girl to go mute for nearly six years, and her teens and early twenties were spent as a dancer, filled with isolation and experimentation.
At 16 she gave birth to a son, Guy, after which she toured Europe and Africa in the musical Porgy and Bess. On returning to New York City in the 1960s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and became involved in black activism. She then spent several years in Ghana as editor of African Review, where she began to take her life, her activism and her writing more seriously.
Maya Angelou’s five-volume autobiography commenced with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970. The memoirs chronicle different eras of her life and were met with critical and popular success. Later books include All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) and My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994). She has published several volumes of verse, including And Still I Rise (1987) and Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1995). Her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die (1971), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1993, Angelou read ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s Presidential inauguration, a poem written at his request. It was only the second time a poet had been asked to read at an inauguration, the first being Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. In 2006, Angelou agreed to host a weekly radio show on XM Satellite Radio’s Oprah & Friends channel. She also teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she has a lifetime position as the Reynolds professor of American studies.
Drawing from her own life experiences, Angelou published Letter to My Daughter in 2008. She wrote the work for the daughter she never had, sharing anecdotes and offering advice. Well received, the book earned several honors, including a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work-Non-Fiction.