Maya Angelo (1928-2014) was an American poet, an award-winning author and civil rights activist. She was an amazingly brilliant and talented human being that persisted through adversity with grace and heart. Angelou achieved critical acclaim in 1969 with her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, which made history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.
Born Marjorie Annie Johnson on April 4th 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou had a very difficult childhood, and as a result of devastating trauma at age 7, did not speak for nearly 5 years. She began to speak again when she moved to San Francisco with her mother and brother at age 13. Angelou attended Mission High School and studied dance and acting at the California Labor School on scholarship. She took a job as a cable car conductor in San Francisco during her teens, making her the first black female conductor. She had a son in 1944 at age 16, and worked several jobs to support herself and her child.
Her career as a performer began to pick up in the mid-1950s, she toured with a several off-Broadway productions and released her first album. During the 1960s Angelou lived in Cairo, Egypt where she worked as an associate editor of a newspaper and a feature editor of the African Review. While living abroad, she studied and mastered French, Spanish, Italian and Arabic.
In 1964 Maya Angelou return to the United States. She wanted to help Malcolm X with his new Organization of African American Unity, he was assassinated shortly after her arrival in America. She remained active in civil rights movement working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. serving as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian leadership conference. Her good friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated on Maya Angelou’s birthday 1968, she was devastated.
Angelou found solace in writing with the help of her friend and fellow novelist James Baldwin. Out of this work came, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, the story of her life from childhood to the birth of her own child. It was wildly successful and well received, becoming the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.
She continued to break ground, in 1972 she wrote the drama “Georgia, Georgia”, and became the first African-American woman to have her screenplay filmed. It earned both Tony and Emmy Award nominations as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Over the course of her career she published seven autobiographies, three books of essays and several poetry books. She is also credited with numerous plays, movies and television appearances.
She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. In 2000 she received the Presidential Medal of the Arts, and in 2011 President Obama awarded Maya Angelou the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Maya Angelou wrote staggeringly beautiful poetry with her words and with her life, she was indeed a phenomenal woman.
“The Desire to reach for the stars is ambitious, the desire to reach hearts is wise.” -Maya Angelou
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