Poet and novelist Maya Angelou—born Marguerite Johnson—is born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she and her brother went to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. When she was eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she revealed what happened, her uncles kicked the culprit to death. Frightened by the power of her own tongue, Angelou chose not to speak for the next five years.
From this quiet beginning emerged a young woman who sang, danced, and recorded poetry. After moving to San Francisco with her mother and brother in 1940, Angelou began taking dance lessons, eventually auditioning for professional theater. However, her plans were put on hold when she had a son at age 16. She moved to San Diego, worked as a nightclub waitress, tangled with drugs and prostitution and danced in a strip club. Ironically, the strip club saved her career: She was discovered there by a theater group.
She auditioned for an international tour of Porgy and Bess and won a role. From 1954 to ’55, she toured 22 countries.
In 1959, she moved to New York, became friends with prominent Harlem writers, and got involved with the civil rights movement. In 1961, she moved to Egypt with a boyfriend and edited for the Arab Observer. After leaving her boyfriend, she headed to Ghana, where a car accident severely injured her son. While caring for him in Ghana, she took a job at the African Review, where she stayed for several years. Her writing and personal development flourished under the African cultural renaissance that was taking place.
When she returned to the U.S., she began publishing her multivolume autobiography, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Four more volumes appeared during the next two decades, as well as several books of poetry. In 1981, Angelou was appointed Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. She was nominated for several important awards and read a poem written for the occasion at President Clinton’s inauguration.
Angelou died on May 28, 2014, in North Carolina. She was 86 years old.