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Maya Angelou

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English Literature

Maya Angelou (1928–2014) was a poet, writer, and civil rights activist. She is best known for her autobiographies, the first of which is I know why the caged bird sings (1969), and spoken-word albums.

This explanation contains sensitive topics.

Maya Angelou's biography and facts

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St Louis Missouri in April 1928. Her parents, Bailey Johnson and Vivian Johnson, raised her alongside her older brother, Bailey Jr.

Maya Angelou came to be known as Maya from a nickname given to her by her older brother. Angelou wrote in her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that the name came from him calling her 'Mya Sister'.

After her parents' marriage ended in 1931 Angelou went to live with her grandmother Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas. In 1935, Angelou's father returned and took her and her brother back to their mother in St Louis. At this time, at age eight, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, Freeman. Freeman was found guilty but he was imprisoned for just a single day. After his release, Freeman was beaten to death.

Following this experience, Angelou became a selective mute for almost five years. She and her brother returned to their grandmother's home in Arkansas. Angelou started her schooling at Lafayette Country Training School, a Rosenwald school built in 1929.

Rosenwald school: the Rosenwald school project came from the partnership of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington. The project intended to address the underfunding of schools that educated African American students and the discrimination these students faced. The project built almost 5,000 schools.

From an early age, Angelou was an avid reader. She enjoyed the works of authors including Jessie Fauset, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens. In a 1986 interview on the radio station Fresh Air, she recalled how her teacher Mrs Flowers both encouraged her learning and pushed her to start speaking again, telling her 'You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it'.1

Jessie Fauset (1882–1962): African American writer, editor, and educator. Her work opposed social expectations of the time, featuring black characters who were working professionals.

Maya Angelou captured the impact Mrs Flowers had on her life in her 1986 short story 'Mrs Flowers: A Moment of Friendship'.

Throughout her own life, Maya Angelou influenced many children (both in America and internationally) with her children's books including Kofi and his magic (1996) and Life doesn't frighten me (1993). Angelou also appeared on the children's TV show Sesame Street and narrated the show's 1996 special episode titled Elmo saves Christmas.

At the age of fourteen, Angelou returned to her mother's care, moving to Oakland, California where she attended George Washington High School in San Francisco and studied dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School.

At age 16, Angelou became pregnant. Three weeks after graduating from high school, at 17, she gave birth to her only child, Clyde, in 1945. Clyde later changed his name to Guy Johnson. After graduating Angelou obtained a job as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She also worked as a shake dancer in nightclubs, as a cook, and even had a job in a mechanic's shop where she removed the paint from cars.

Between 1951 and 1954 Angelou was married to Tosh Angelos. During this time she took modern dance classes and lived in New York City for one year, where she studied African dance. After her marriage ended in 1954 Angelou worked as a professional dancer in a number of San Francisco clubs. When dancing at The Purple Onion, Maya Angelou stopped going by Marguerite Johnson and changed her professional name to 'Maya Angelou'.

Angelou toured Europe while in a production of Porgy and Bess, an English language opera, between 1954 and 1955. In 1959, Angelou moved to New York to pursue a career in writing. Here she joined the Harlem Writers Guild. In 1960 she organised the Cabaret for freedom with John Oliver Killens after meeting and listening to Martin Luther King Jr. This Cabaret raised money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an African American civil rights organisation founded in 1957.

Harlem Writers Guild (HWG): established as the Harlem Writers Club in 1950, the HWG gave African American writers a community and platform to present their art and experiences of being black in the USA.

John Oliver Killens (1916–87): an American journalist and writer, who was a founding member of the HWG and often wrote on elements of the African American experience.

In 1961 Angelou met Vusumzi Make, a South African Freedom fighter. She lived with him in Cairo between 1961 and 1962, where she worked as an editor at The Arab Observer. In 1962 Angelou separated from Make and moved to Accra in Ghana for her son's college education. She remained here until 1965, following an automobile accident that temporarily paralysed her son. While living in Accra she befriended Malcolm X, who she worked with to build up the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1965.

Organization of Afro-American Unity: a Pan-Africanist organisation set up in 1964 which aimed to promote the human rights of Black people living in America and facilitate cooperation and communication between Africans and Black people (who are of African descent) living in the Americas.

After Malcolm X's assassination in 1965, Angelou moved around the United States, living in Hawaii, Los Angeles, and New York between 1965 and 1968. In 1968 Angelou wrote, narrated, and produced a ten-episode documentary series on the role of blues music and the heritage of African Americans titled Blacks, Blues, Black! The series aired on National Educational Television. In 1969 Angelou published her first of seven biographies I know why the caged bird sings, which led to her becoming an internationally recognised figure.

In 1973 Angelou married Paul de Feu. During their marriage, which lasted between 1973 and 1981, Angelou wrote a number of articles, scripts, and books, publishing three more autobiographies: Gather together in my name (1974), Singin' and swingin' and gettin' merry like Christmas (1976), and The heart of a woman (1981). Angelou also continued her work in the world of theatre, producing plays and acting in Look Away in 1973 and the television show Roots in 1977. After her divorce, Angelou directed a revival of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John in 1988 in Islington, London.

In 1981 Angelou returned to live in the South of the United States of America, where she accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. In 1993 Angelou attended and performed at Bill Clinton's inauguration, reciting her poem 'On the Pulse of the Morning'. The recording of this poem won a Grammy.

Until her death in 2014, Angelou kept creating art and literature. She directed the feature film Down in the Delta in 1996, created a collection of Hallmark products in 2000, and published her sixth and seventh autobiographies: A song flung up to heaven (2002) and Mom & me & mom (2013). She even campaigned for the Democratic party during the 2008 elections, at first supporting Hilary Clinton and then Barack Obama.

Interesting facts about Maya Angelou

  • During her life, Angelou published seven autobiographies, five books of poetry, and three books of essays.
  • Angelou received a number of awards and honours during her life including over 50 honorary degrees.
  • Maya Angelou was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for her poetry book Just give me cool drink of water 'fore I diiie (1971). In 1973 she was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the play Look Away.
  • Alongside her literary influence, Angelou had political influence, serving on two presidential committees - Gerald Ford (1975) and Jimmy Carter (1977).
  • Angelou will be included in the American Women quarters program which will run from 2022 to 2025. Her image will feature in a number of quarters as a celebration of notable women in US history.

Maya Angelou's books

Maya Angelou wrote a total of seven autobiographies and, at the time of her death in 2014, was reportedly working on an eighth one which explored her experiences with world leaders. Although Angelou's autobiographies are all based on her own life, she utilises writing techniques associated with fiction writing in each of them such as plot and dialogue. Due to this, sometimes these works are classed as autobiographical fiction.

I know why the caged bird sings (1969)

Angelou's first autobiography covers her early childhood to late teenage years. It begins in 1931 when Angelou was first sent to live with her grandmother and ends with the birth of her son Guy just after she had graduated from high school.

This work marked a shift in the expectations of memoirist writers at the time. Angelou openly discussed her life as a Black woman, including her traumas of racism and rape at a time when African Americans faced great oppression and discrimination in society. Angelou centred herself and her story as the 'main character' at a time when Black experiences were often underrepresented and pushed to the side. The way Angelou unapologetically wrote about Blackness set a new standard for African American writers and memoirists.

The heart of a woman (1981)

This memoir is the fourth of Angelou's biographies and follows her journey after she left California for New York and began to play a role in the civil rights movement (1957–62). The book not only focuses on Angelou's role in the civil rights movement but also her experiences raising her son, ending as he starts college.

A song flung up to heaven (2002)

Angelou's penultimate biography explores her return to the United States after living in Ghana for some time and the way she dealt with the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, both of whom she knew. This autobiography is set between 1965 and 1968 and ends at the moment when Angelou starts to write her first autobiography.

Maya Angelou's poems

Maya Angelou published five poetry collections during her lifetime. Her most famous one is Just give me a cool drink of water 'fore I diiie which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Two of her most famous poems are 'Still I rise' (1978) and 'Caged bird' (1983).

'Still I rise' (1978)

'Still I rise' centres on Maya Angelou's own experiences as a Black woman in America. It describes how she rose up and persevered through not just her own trauma, but also the generational trauma of African Americans. Through both the historical and modern conception and treatment of African Americans she rises, she is 'the dream and the hope of the slave' and refuses to be anything else other than her sassy, haughty, and sexy self.

An effective literary device Maya Angelou utilises in this poem is repetition. Throughout the poem she repeats the word 'rise', stating in the first five stanzas 'I'll rise' and in the final two stanza's 'I rise':

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise I rise I rise.

The repetition of this phrase creates the continuous image of rising up throughout the poem. This is emphasised by the switch between the future tense 'I'll rise' and the present tense 'I rise'. The change between these two tenses suggests a build-up to the action of rising, creating a sense of release at the end of the poem, as 'I rise' is repeated three times.

'Caged bird' (1983)

The title of 'Caged bird' is similar to the title of Angelou's first poem, it is clear that the metaphor of a caged bird holds significance for her. In the poem, Angelou describes two birds: one free which 'leaps' and 'dares to claim the sky' and another is caged, singing a fearful 'trill'. Despite the trauma this caged bird has evidently experienced, it 'sings of freedom'.

The two separate birds represent two things:

  1. The history and experiences of African Americans throughout the history of the USA.

  2. Maya Angelou's own experiences in childhood, and selective mutism between the ages of eight and twelve.

Enjambment is used to great effect in this poem, for instance, in the poem's final stanza:

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

In this stanza, enjambment is used until the final end-stopped line. This encourages the reader to consider each line individually, as the enjambment fragments the rhythm. Additionally, there is an ABCBDB rhyme scheme for the first six lines of the stanza. This creates a regular tempo that is fragmented not only by the enjambment but by the break of the rhyme scheme in the poem's final two lines:

or the caged bird

sings of freedom.

This emphasises the idea of 'freedom', perhaps suggesting that the caged bird is breaking free by singing, just as the poem's lines are breaking free from its rhyme scheme.

Maya Angelou: quotes

Let's look at some prominent quotes from Maya Angelou's works.

From I know why the caged bird sings:

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

From A letter to my daughter (1987):

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

From Phenomenal woman: four poems celebrating women (1995):

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I'm telling lies.

I say,

It's in the reach of my arms

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I'm a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That's me.

Maya Angelou - Key takeaways

  • Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St Louis Missouri in April 1928.
  • Angelou published seven autobiographies, five books of poetry, and three books of essays.
  • Angelou became a selective mute for around five years. Her teacher Mrs Flowers pushed her to start speaking again, telling her 'You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it'.
  • Maya Angelou had her only child at age seventeen in 1945, Guy (Clyde) Johnson.
  • While living in Accra, Ghana, Angelou befriended Malcolm X, who she worked with to build up the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1965.

1 Fresh Air, 'Fresh Air' Remembers Poet And Memoirist Maya Angelou, 2014.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (1928 - 2014) was a poet, writer, and civil rights activist. She is best known for her autobiographies, the first being When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and spoken-word albums. 

Maya Angelou was an accomplished writer, actor, director, producer and activist. During her life time she published seven autobiographies and five poetry collections. She was awarded over fifty honorary degrees and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Maya Angelou wrote seven autobiographies.

From the ages of eight to twelve and a half Maya Angelou was selectively mute. She stopped speaking after her rapist was beaten to death by her uncles, as she believed it was her words that killed him.

Maya Angelou died in May 2014.

Final Maya Angelou Quiz

Question

What was Maya Angelou's birth name?

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Answer

Marguerite Annie Johnson 

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Question

Who did Maya Angelou go to live with when she was three (1931)?

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Answer

Maya Angelou went to live with her grandmother Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas.  

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Question

What happened to Maya Angelou when she was eight? 

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Answer

She was raped by her mother's boyfriend.

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Question

For how long was Maya Angelou a selective mute?

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Answer

Just under five years - between the ages of eight and twelve-and-a-half.

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Question

Who was Mrs. Flowers?

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Answer

Maya Angelou's teacher who encouraged her to start speaking again.

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Question

True or false? Maya Angelou had her first and only child at age seventeen.

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Answer

True. At age sixteen, Angelou became pregnant. Three weeks after graduating from high school, at seventeen, she gave birth to her only child Clyde in 1945. 

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Question

True or False? Maya Angelou was the first black female streetcar conductor in the USA.

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Answer

False. Maya Angelou was the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.

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Question

Which group did Maya Angelou join when she moved to New York in 1960?

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Answer

The Harlem Writers Guild

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Question

Who did Angelou befriend while living in Accra?

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Answer

Malcolm X - an African American civil rights activist.

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Question

What did Maya Angelou publish in 1969?

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Answer

In 1969 Maya Angelou published her first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

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Question

True or False? Maya Angelou performed at Barack Obama's inauguration.

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Answer

False! Angelou attended and performed at Bill Clinton's inauguration, reciting her poem 'On the Pulse of the Morning', the recording of this poem won a Grammy. 

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Question

When was A Song Flung Up to Heaven published?

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Answer

2002

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Question

Which poem is this verse from;

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

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Answer

'Still I Rise' (1978)

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Question

What does Maya Angelou describe in 'Caged Bird' (1983)?

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Answer

Angelou describes two birds, one free which 'leaps' and 'dares to claim the sky' another is caged, singing a fearful trill.  

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