© Johnson Family Archives
Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Johnson on April 4th, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri and raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. Maya Angelou became one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time. With over 50 honorary doctorate degrees Dr. Maya Angelou became a celebrated poet, memoirist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist.
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Stamps, Arkansas represented the American south and its practice of brutality and racial discrimination. In many ways, young Marguerite Raised by her paternal grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, Maya Angelou also absorbed unshakable faith and values. Mrs. Annie Henderson began a business of selling hot meals to workers and eventually built the Johnson Grocery store serving both whites and blacks. With living quarters behind the store, the store was also her family home. Maya Angelou lived here with her beloved brother Bailey Johnson and her crippled Uncle Willie.
Uncle Willie’s gentle but firm spirit would prove to instill compassion. Bailey a brother small in size but large in confidence would offer a sense of safety. Maya Angelou would later say, “Bailey was the closest my family ever came to creating a genius.”
Mrs. Annie Henderson would tirelessly teach Christian principals, love and respect while exhibiting examples of independence and courage. She sang most Sunday’s at church and hummed hymns at home. Maya Angelou would remember the song “Stepping Out on Your Word” as being a favorite and recall imagining her grandmother rising to the sky and stepping out on the Word of God. As an entrepreneur at a time when blacks owned very little, Mrs. Annie Henderson encouraged Maya Angelou to believe in God, honest work and family.
As a teenager, Dr. Angelou’s love for the arts won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. At 14, she dropped out to become San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later finished high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation. As a young single mother, she supported her son by working as a waitress and cook, however her passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry would soon take center stage. Maya Angelou’s life would continue to mirror the American landscape paving the way for a first hand experience with racism, single parenting, over-coming poverty, seeking higher education, creating wealth, living through and participating in the civil rights movement. In later years she would embrace popular culture working with rappers, poets, musicians and filmmakers. Writing about her experience with eloquence and detail, Maya Angelou recorded history through poetry, biographies, journalism, children’s books, cook books and essays painting a picture of the American landscape for generations to come.
In the late 1950’s Maya Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings received international acclaim made the bestseller list. The book was also banned in many schools during that time as Maya Angelou’s honesty about having been sexually abused opened a subject matter that had long been taboo in the culture. Later, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would become a course adoption at college campuses around the world. With more than 30 bestselling titles, Maya Angelou has written 36 books.
In 1954 and 1955, Dr. Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows and, in 1957, recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom.
A trailblazer in film and television, Dr. Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. Her script, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Maya Angelou continued to appear on television and in films including the landmark television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) and John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993). In 1996, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta.
With a love for music, Maya Angelou would sing calypso, dance in night and supper clubs and eventually become known for her ability to write lyrics and perform spoken word. Collaborating with Quincy Jones she wrote lyrics for B.B. King in the film For Love of Ivy, a Sidney Poitier film.
She would later become close friends and work intimately with Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford to produce an album titled Been Found, featuring Ashford and Simpson’s vocals and Maya Angelou’s spoken word and released in 1996.
Maya Angelou has won three Grammys: Best Spoken Word Album, Best Spoken Word or Non Musical Album 1993 for On the Pulse of Morning, Grammy for Best Spoken Word or Non Musical Album, 1995 for Phenomenal Woman, Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album, 2000 for A Song Flung up to Heaven.
Earlier this year Maya Angelou was working on Caged Bird Songs an Album combining various genre’s of music including hip-hop to be released posthumously on November 4, 2014.
In 1960, Dr. Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.
During her years abroad, Dr. Angelou read and studied voraciously, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity.
Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved. Soon after X’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Dr. Angelou to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King’s assassination, falling on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated.
Maya Angelou continued her work in Civil Rights and has also been widely recognized as a international ambassador for good will crossing lines of race and culture.
Dr. Angelou has served on two presidential committees. President Clinton requested that she compose a poem to read at his inauguration in 1993. Dr. Angelou’s reading of her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” was broadcast live around the world.Dr. Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000. In 2000, Maya Angelou received the National Medal of Arts. She penned the poem Amazing Peace for President George W. Bush and delivered the poem at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
President Barack Obama presented her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor in 2010.
Dr. Maya Angelou received over 50 honorary degrees and was the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University for more than 25 years.
In addition to her large body of work, Maya Angelou is known for quotes of inspiration, many of which are on each page of this website. Dr. Angelou’s words and actions continue to stir our souls, energize our bodies, liberate our minds, and heal our hearts.