Maya Angelou led a fascinating life filled with many talents as a writer. She wrote poetry as well as being a memoirist, and author. Besides being a writer, she was also a singer, dancer, spoke several foreign languages, taught at Wake Forest University, and nominated for a Tony Award in acting. Angelou passed away on Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86. Here are just a few of the many fascinating facts about Marguerite Ann Johnson, better known as Maya Angelou.
Many think of her as a poet first and foremost since reading one of her poems, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. She became the first woman to read poetry at a presidential swearing-in since John F. Kennedy’s in 1961 with poet Robert Frost. The poem she read at the inauguration was about diversity in America. Both Angelou and Clinton grew up in Arkansas.
President Obama has stated his own mother named his sister Maya after the author-poet.
In 1969 Angelou wrote the first of her many memoirs titled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It’s about her childhood in the Deep South during the Jim Crowe laws, which is the immense segregation of blacks and whites in public schools, businesses, restrooms, drinking fountains, and most notably public transportation. The book was published at a time when it was a taboo subject, especially for a black woman to write about. It’s now featured on many students’ reading lists, despite being banned from time to time.
Her other subsequent memoirs included “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), and “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002). The accumulated six-volume memoir of Maya’s only takes her to age 40.
During her teens Maya lived in San Francisco where she studied dance and drama at the California Labor School. She even became the first black female streetcar conductor.
She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. At age three she and her brother were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. In her first memoir she described it as, “with its dust and hate and narrowness was as South as it was possible to get.”
.Music producer Quincy Jones, who produced Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” album, collaborated with Angelou on two songs for his soundtrack “For Love of Ivy” in 1968.
Maya was in the 1973 Broadway production of “Look Away,” a two-character play about Mary Todd Lincoln (Geraldine Page) and her seamstress. She would later be nominated for a Tony Award.