Marguerite Ann Johnson, better known as Maya Angelou is also called upon as the global Renaissance Woman. Scholar Joanne M. Braxton once referred to her as America’s most visible black female autobiographer. In addition to being an author and a poet, Angelou is also an accomplished historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, stage and screen producer, director, performer, singer, and civil rights activist. However, she is best known as the author of her six volumes of autobiographies of which the most widely read and acclaimed is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) which is based on the events of the first seventeen years of Angelou’s life. The book gained Angelou immense international popularity and also won a nomination for the National Book Award. She also held a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for her exceptional 1971 collection of poetry entitled, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie. Maya Angelou holds the record for spending the longest time (2 years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List. For her outstanding services to the American literature, Maya Angelou has been awarded 30 doctorate degrees and also the most prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Always socially and politically active, Maya Angelou took an active part in the Civil Rights movement and also worked at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as Northern Coordinator. During late 1950s, Angelou was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild. She has made around 80 appearances on lecture circuits annually since 1990 and holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she has taught since 1991. Another incomparable honor for Angelou was to recite her poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, making her the first person to carry out a recitation after Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
Maya Angelou dared to discuss her personal life in public when not many could even think of doing it. She was one of the first African American women to achieve so much recognition and become a pioneer of a new kind of autobiographer with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her autobiographic fictional works have set new trends in the genre. Angelou took deliberate actions to challenge and change the common structure of an autobiography. Although most of Angelou’s works are used as text in schools and universities, a few controversial ones have been banned in U.S. schools and libraries. Nearly all of her works focus upon issues of racism, identity and family. Angelou has gained remarkable respect amongst black people and especially black women who look up to her as their spokesperson on numerous issues.
Dr. Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas where she was subject to severe racial discrimination. She won a scholarship to San Francisco’s Labor School to study dance and drama but dropped out at age 14 and became the first black female African American cable car conductor. She completed high school later and also gave birth to her son, Guy. Life was tough for this young single mother who worked as a waitress and cook to support her child. However, soon life took a turn and Angelou learned to dance properly with Martha Graham. She acted in Off-Broadway productions. In 1960, Angelou moved to Egypt where she became the editor of The Arab Observer, an English language weekly. A year later, Angelou was in Ghana, teaching at the University of Ghana’s school of music and drama. She also continued writing, featuring in The African Review and The Ghanaian Times. Upon return to the United States, Angelou has been involved in a number of literary and social activities in addition to numerous appearances in films and television. Maya Angelou continues to inspire people all around the world with her work and achievements.