She was friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and James Baldwin, and she won a Grammy for a poem recitation.
Before I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the idea of a black woman writing the story of her childhood (one marked by abuse and hardship) and it becoming one of the best-selling memoirs of all time would have been inconceivable. But Maya Angelou was never one to shy away from a challenge or to fear the unknown. Throughout her life as an artist and writer, she never let the expectations and limitations imposed on her by American society dictate what decisions she would make or how she would live her life. In every aspect of her career and personal life, she was very much in charge and, through her work, she sought to inspire women of all ages to do the same. That is why she became an icon and that is why we celebrate her.
On the anniversary of her death, May 28th, we take a look at Maya Angelou’s life and share some interesting facts about her you might not know:
1- She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4th, 1928, in St. Lous, Missouri. Maya was one of her brothers’ nicknames for her, and Angelou comes from her first husband’s last name, Angelos, of Greek origin. She chose to go by this new name when she started rising in the entertainment industry.
2- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), a memoir that follows her from early childhood to the age of 17, is her most popular book, but it is only the first of seven autobiographies she wrote throughout her life. The last one, Mom & Me & Mom, came out in 2013, one year before her death, and, as the title suggests, is about her relationship with her mother.
3- She only made up her mind to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s murder affected her deeply, since she had gotten to know him personally in her years as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, but fellow writer James Baldwin helped her process the tragedy and work through her emotions to write her memoir.
4- Besides being a writer, Angelou held a variety of jobs in her youth, both artistic and not, from nightclub dancer, to fry cook, cable car conductor, and sex worker.
5- These jobs led her to travel and live all over the world. For instance, she worked as a journalist for English-language newspapers in Egypt and Ghana in the 1960s, and toured Europe as part of an opera called Porgy and Bess. Everywhere she went, she strove to learn the local language, so before long, she was proficient in several of them.
6- For years, she followed the same writing ritual, which she credited for her productivity. The ritual involved checking into a hotel in the early morning avoiding all distractions, write by hand in legal pads, check out in the afternoon, and edit what she wrote that day in the evening.
7- She won a Grammy Award for a recording of her recitation of a poem called “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which she read at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She was the first poet to do so at a presidential inauguration since John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, where Robert Frost read a poem of his.
8- She never went to college, but her long career and multiple achievements earned her over fifty honorary degrees, from universities like Howard and Columbia.
In the pantheon of great black women in American history, Maya Angelou stands out, not just for having excelled in the arts and inspiring countless artists after her, but also for having the courage to do things her way. She carved out her own path in a society that was and still is deeply racist and misogynist, and she never let fear stand in the way of her freedom.