On this day in 2014, author and poet Maya Angelou, who published more than 30 books, including 1969’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a best-selling memoir about the racism and abuse she experienced growing up, dies at 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to her celebrated literary career, Angelou was a performer, civil rights activist and college professor.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Angelou was sent at age 3 to live with her grandmother in segregated Stamps, Arkansas, after her parents divorced. When Angelou was 7 or 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend in St. Louis. He was convicted of the crime but beaten to death soon afterward. For the next five years, the traumatized Angelou stopped speaking to anyone except her beloved older brother. As a teen, Angelou moved to San Francisco, where her mother was living, and worked as the city’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She became pregnant at 16 and gave birth shortly after graduating high school then held a series of jobs, including waitress, cook and madam, while raising her son on her own.
In the early 1950s, she worked as a nightclub singer and dancer and began using the name Maya Angelou—Maya was her brother’s nickname for her and Angelou was a variation on the last name of the man to whom she briefly was married around this time. Angelou, who stood 6 feet tall, went on to tour Europe in a production of “Porgy and Bess” and release an album of calypso songs. In the late 1950s, she moved to New York City, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and became involved in the civil rights movement; she later got to know both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. During the early 1960s, she lived in Egypt and Ghana and worked as a writer and editor.
In 1969, Angelou published her first book, the critically acclaimed “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which chronicles the first 17 years of her life. The best-selling memoir has been translated into multiple languages and is a mainstay on high school and college reading lists. Angelou subsequently published other autobiographies, including “Gather Together in My Name” (1974), “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1977), “The Heart of a Woman” (1981), “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986), “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002) and “Mom & Me & Mom” (2013). She also released a number of volumes of poetry, the first of which, “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie” (1971), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1993, she delivered her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. Angelou further expanded her audience in 2002 when Hallmark began selling greeting cards and other products featuring her words.
Besides her books and poems, Angelou wrote for theater, film and television, was a Tony Award-nominated actress and directed a feature film, “Down in the Delta” (1998). She also taught at Wake Forest University for three decades, starting in the early 1980s. In 2011, President Barack Obama, whose own sister was named for Angelou, awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, saying: “By holding on even amid cruelty and loss, and then expanding to a sense of compassion, an ability to love–by holding on to her humanity, she has inspired countless others who have known injustice and misfortune in their own lives.”