Authors: Maya Angelou

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American poet and memoirist

April 4, 1928

St. Louis, Missouri

May 28, 2014

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Biography

Maya Angelou was a modern-day Renaissance woman. As a writer, she was best known for her autobiographies, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and for her collections of poetry, but she also gained prominence through her playwriting, directing, acting, dancing, and involvement in civil rights movements. She was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Upon the breakup of her parents’ marriage, she was sent by her mother to Stamps, Arkansas, where she lived with her paternal grandmother, Ann Henderson. These years are chronicled in the first volume of Angelou’s autobiography, and they include both typical and atypical experiences of growing up, from the time that Angelou imposed silence upon herself to the time she graduated from Lafayette Training School, aware of the racial prejudice that had prevented her from aspiring to more than an education in a vocational school.

After graduation, Angelou moved to San Francisco to live with her mother. There she gave birth to a son, studied dance and drama, and began a career as a performer. In the 1950s, she performed in nightclubs in San Francisco and New York and toured Europe and Africa as a member of a company staging the opera Porgy and Bess. In the 1960s, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Following this experience, she lived in Ghana, where she was a reporter for the Ghanian Times, a writer for Radio Ghana, an editor of the African Review, and an assistant administrator at the University of Ghana. In 1970, she published the first (and the most famous) of a series of autobiographies.

Maya Angelou reciting her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993

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By Office of the White House. (Via NPR [1], courtesy of the White House)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maya Angelou at York College

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By York College ISLGP (Flickr: Maya Angelou visits YCP! 2/4/13) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings takes its title from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar that includes the lines: “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me / When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore.” The poet Dunbar and the autobiographer Angelou both explore the feeling of entrapment, a caged-in experience particular to black men and women learning to survive. Angelou continued to explore the realities of oppression and survival in the autobiographies written after I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Between 1974 and 1986, she wrote four more memoirs—Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. She also published collections of autobiographical essays, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now and A Song Flung Up to Heaven. She has made hundreds of television appearances and was among the most popular and best-paid speakers on the college lecture circuit. Her stature was such by the 1990s that President Bill Clinton selected her to read “On the Pulse of Morning” at his 1993 inauguration. In 2011, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

Angelou’s writings contain a mixture of poetry, prose, and drama. In addition to this mixture of genres, the works demonstrate a combination of comedy and drama, from anecdotes that reveal humorous incidents associated with childhood experiences to passages that suggest the dramatic intensity of growing up black and female in a racist, sexist South. Like the painter who mixes colors to achieve a unique hue, Angelou’s mix results in a particular voice that sings of slavery and survival, of hatred and love, and of darkness and illumination.

Her most significant work, and the one that best demonstrates this unique voice, is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Both popular and academic audiences have identified this autobiography as one of the finest of its kind, a memoir that speaks of the unique experience of Maya Angelou while at the same time offering a universal story of maturation. Her other autobiographies have not been received so enthusiastically and are sometimes criticized for lacking the complexities and depth of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Despite this mixed review of her later works, there is little question that both the quantity and quality of her work, particularly the quality of her first memoir, assured Maya Angelou a place in literary history.

Author Works Nonfiction I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970 Gather Together in My Name, 1974 Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, 1976 The Heart of a Woman, 1981 All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, 1986 Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, 1993 Even the Stars Look Lonesome, 1997 A Song Flung Up to Heaven, 2002 The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou, 2004 Letter to My Daughter, 2008 Mom & Me & Mom, 2013 Poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie, 1971 Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, 1975 And Still I Rise, 1978 Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?, 1983 Poems: Maya Angelou, 1986 Now Sheba Sings the Song, 1987 (illustrated by Tom Feelings) I Shall Not Be Moved: Poems, 1990 On the Pulse of Morning, 1993 The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, 1994 Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women, 1994 A Brave and Startling Truth, 1995 Poems, 1997 The Complete Poetry, 2015 Short Fiction “Steady Going Up,” 1972 “The Reunion,” 1983 Drama Cabaret for Freedom, pr. 1960 (musical with Godfrey Cambridge) The Least of These, pr. 1966 Encounters, pr. 1973 Ajax, pr. 1974 (adaptation of Sophocles’ play) And Still I Rise, pr. 1976 King, pr. 1990 (musical lyrics with Alistair Beaton, book by Lonne Elder III music by Richard Blackford) Screenplays Georgia, Georgia, 1972 All Day Long, 1974 Teleplays Black, Blues, Black, 1968 (ten episodes) The Inheritors, 1976 The Legacy, 1976 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1979 (with Leonora Thuna and Ralph B. Woolsey) Sister, Sister, 1982 Brewster Place, 1990 Children’s/Young Adult Literature Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship, 1986 (illustrated by Etienne Delessert) Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, 1993 (poetry illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat) Soul Looks Back in Wonder, 1993 My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me, 1994 Kofi and His Magic, 1996 Bibliography Bloom, Harold, editor. Maya Angelou. Chelsea House, 1999. This selection of essays dealing with Angelou’s poetry and prose broaches, among other subjects, the singular relationship of Angelou to her audience and her distinctively African American mode of literary expression. Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Temple UP, 1989. Discusses how Angelou employs the image of the protecting mother as a primary archetype within her work. Traces Angelou’s development of themes common to black female autobiography: the centrality of the family, the challenges of child rearing and single parenthood, and the burden of overcoming negative stereotypes of African American women. Cudjoe, Selwyn. “Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement.” Black Women Writers (1950–1980), edited by Mari Evans. Anchor Press, 1983. Cudjoe discusses the importance of Angelou’s biographical work, arguing that she represents “the condition of Afro-American womanhood in her quest for understanding and love rather than for bitterness and despair.” Cudjoe stresses that by telling the story of her own life in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has shown the reader what it means to be a black female in America. Elliott, Jeffrey M., editor. Conversations with Maya Angelou. UP of Mississippi, 1989. Part of the University Press of Mississippi’s ongoing Literary Conversations series, this work is a collection of more than thirty interviews with Angelou that originally appeared in various magazines and newspapers, accompanied by a chronology of her life. Provides a multifaceted perspective on the creative issues that have informed Angelou’s work as an autobiographer and a poet. Guntern, Gottlieb, editor. The Challenge of Creative Leadership. Shepheard-Walwyn, 1997. Guntern’s criteria for those who inspire others to move beyond mediocrity are explored in these philosophical pieces. Among these criteria are originality, elegance, and profundity. Hagen, Lynn B. Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou. UP of America, 1996. While a number of scholarly works address the different literary forms Angelou has undertaken (most devoted to autobiography), few critical volumes survey her entire opus, and Hagen’s is one of the best. Chapters include “Wit and Wisdom/Mirth and Mischief,” “Abstracts in Ethics,” and “Overview.” King, Sarah E. Maya Angelou: Greeting the Morning. Millbrook Press, 1994. Includes biographical references and an index. Examines Angelou’s life, from her childhood in the segregated South to her rise to prominence as a writer. Koyana, Siphokazi, and Rosemary Gray. “Growing up with Maya Angelou and Sindiwe Magona: A Comparison.” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Comparative Studies 7 (November, 2001). Lisandrelli, Elaine Slivinski. Maya Angelou: More than a Poet. Enslow, 1996. Lisandrelli discusses the flamboyance of Angelou, comparing her to the earlier African American author Zora Neale Hurston. Their hard work, optimism, perseverance, and belief in themselves are extolled. Lupton, Mary Jane. Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press, 1998. While focusing mainly on the autobiographies, Lupton’s study is still useful as a balanced assessment of Angelou’s writings. The volume also contains an excellent bibliography, particularly of Angelou’s autobiographical works. McPherson, Dolly A. Order out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. P. Lang, 1990. A book-length study of Angelou. O’Neale, Sondra. “Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou’s Continuing Autobiography.” Black Women Writers (1950–1980), edited by Mari Evans. Anchor Press, 1983. O’Neale argues that Angelou’s primary contribution to the canon of African American literature lies in her realistic portrayal of the lives of black people, especially black women. O’Neale goes on to demonstrate the ways in which Angelou successfully destroys many of the stereotypes of black women. Pettit, Jayne. Maya Angelou: Journey of the Heart. Lodestar Books, 1996. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Traces Angelou’s journey from childhood through her life as entertainer, activist, writer, and university professor. Shapiro, Miles. Maya Angelou. Chelsea House, 1994. A biography describing the life and work of the celebrated writer. Tate, Claudia, editor. Black Women Writers at Work. Continuum, 1983. In this collection of interviews, Tate explores the personal lives and works of such contemporary African American writers as Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. In her interview, Angelou discusses the importance of black role models. Williams, Mary E., editor. Readings on Maya Angelou. Greenhaven Press, 1997. This collection of essays by literary scholars and noted faculty offers diverse voices and approaches to Angelou’s literary canon.

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