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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Maya Angelou | Biography


Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, and attained worldwide fame and acclaim as Maya Angelou—poet, dramatist, spokesperson, and civil rights activist.

Her parents divorced when she was three years old, and Maya (Marguerite's nickname from childhood) and her brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their grandmother, Anne Henderson, in rural Stamps, Arkansas.

At the beginning of World War II, Maya and her brother moved to San Francisco, California, to live with their mother. In high school, Maya took evening classes in dance and acting. She took a break from school to become the first African American female streetcar operator in San Francisco. Just weeks after graduating from high school, Maya gave birth to her only child, a son. In 1952, she married a Greek sailor. It was when she began a successful career as a nightclub singer and performer that she took the name Maya Angelou, combining a form of her husband's last name with her childhood nickname.

Maya later divorced and moved to New York where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild. She then moved to Egypt and then on to West Africa in the early 1960s, working as a freelance writer and feature editor. When she returned to the United States a few years later, Angelou worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement. Grief-stricken by Dr. King's assassination in 1968, she began to write her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Over the years she evolved into the epitome of a multitalented artist.

The success of her first book led her to write six more autobiographical works, as well as many volumes of poetry. Her 1971 poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die, as well as her 1972 screenplay for the movie Georgia, Georgia were both nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her performance in Look Away and for an Emmy Award in 1977 for her role in Roots. In 1982, Angelou was appointed as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston–Salem, North Carolina. Over the years, she wrote and directed for television and films. Angelou's poem "Pulse of the Morning," which she read at the inauguration of President Clinton in 1993, was broadcast around the world. Numerous awards and medals have been bestowed on the poet. In 2000 she received the National Medal of Arts, and in 2011 President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the most esteemed civilian award in the country.

Angelou died in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on May 28, 2014, at age 86.

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