Black Pioneers: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou
Photo courtesy of Stephen Parker / Alamy Stock Photo.

On this date in 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Maya Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou was an internationally renowned bestselling author, poet, actor and performer, as well as a pioneering activist for the rights of African American and women. 

Her first published book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was an autobiographical account of her childhood, including the 10 years she lived in Stamps, Ark. with her grandmother. The popular and critical success of the book was the foundation of her career as an author and public figure, as well as the basis of her identification as an Arkansas author, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, to Bailey Johnson, who was a naval dietitian, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, who was a nurse. Angelou had one sibling, her older brother Bailey Jr.; he called her “Maya,” his version of “my sister.”

After the divorce of their parents in 1931, Marguerite and Bailey Jr. were sent to Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their uncle, Willie, in Stamps. Henderson owned a grocery store in the center of the Black section of the small town and reared the children according to the strict Christian values common in the rural South at that time. The family encountered the racial prejudice of white customers in the store and of the community leaders generally. 

In 1935, the children were returned to the care of their mother in St. Louis but were sent back to Stamps after it was discovered that Marguerite had been sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was tried and convicted but then released; he was found dead soon after. The eight-year-old girl felt guilty and believed that her voice had caused the death of the rapist, so she became mute and remained so for several years.

The two children once again moved to be with their mother — this time to San Francisco. After dropping out of high school, Marguerite was briefly employed as a cable car conductor, the first Black person ever to hold that position. She returned to Mission High School and earned a scholarship to study dance, drama and music at San Francisco’s Labor School where she also learned about the progressive ideologies that may have served as a foundation for her later social and political activism. In 1944, three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to her son, Claude (who later changed his name to Guy). She had no further formal education.

In the early 1960s, she met South African freedom fighter and civil rights advocate Vusumzi Make, a leader of the Pan Africanist Congress who was then living in New York City. They moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she became editor of the weekly newspaper the Arab Observer. In 1963, she and her son left Egypt for Ghana, where she met Malcolm X. She became an assistant administrator at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama and later a feature editor for the African Review, as well as a feature writer for the Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company, where she also recorded public service announcements.

Upon returning to the United States, Angelou rejoined the civil rights movement, working with Malcolm X in the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, and King was assassinated in 1968 — on April 4, Angelou’s birthday.

In reaction to these events, Angelou — encouraged by novelist James Baldwin — began writing the first installment of her life story, including an account of her years in Arkansas. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was first published in 1970 and has since been translated into more than 10 languages. Her experiences in the civil rights movement were a focus of a later autobiography, The Heart of a Woman. Enjoying her burgeoning career as a writer, lecturer, and public personality, she wrote the screenplay for Georgia, Georgia, a Swedish-American film; it was the first screenplay by an African American to be filmed. A collection of her poems, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. 

In 1993, she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. That same year, she was in the first group of inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.   

Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000. In 2002, she won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for A Song Flung Up to Heaven. In 2013, she received the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation and the Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Norman Mailer Center. She held over 50 honorary university degrees, along with many other awards recognizing her accomplishments in the arts and her service to human rights.

After a period of ill health, Angelou was found dead by her caretaker on May 28, 2014, in North Carolina. In June 2014, the town of Stamps renamed its only park in her honor. On April 7, 2015, the U.S. Postal Service released a stamp in her honor. In March 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure to rename a post office in Winston-Salem, N.C. after Angelou. In January 2021, Mattel launched a Barbie in the likeness of Angelou as part of its “Inspiring Women” series.