Understanding the life and work of Maya Angelou
Born in 1928, Maya Angelou was a prolific writer but also a singer, a stage performer, an academic and a civil rights activist. Her writing is often pigeon-holed as autobiographical fiction in which the novels and poems she produced are based on her own real-life experiences. That said, Maya Angelou was also a very experienced non-fiction writer. Particularly so when she worked as a journalist in the middle of the twentieth century, covering the decolonisation of both Egypt and Ghana for the American press. As a civil rights activist, she worked with many of the important leaders of the time, including Malcolm X and Doctor Martin Luther King. In her work, there are several recurrent themes which include identity, travel, racism, gender politics and the role of the family.
Where did Maya Angelou grow up?
Maya Angelou was born in the capital city of Missouri, Saint Louis. However, she was sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, when her parents split up at the age of just three. After a period of four years, she returned to Saint Louis when her father placed her back in the custody of her mother, although this was not a long-lived arrangement. At the age of 14, she moved to Oakland in California, where her mother had resettled.
What was Maya Angelou famous for?
Although Maya Angelou found some fame as a performer in New York City in the 1950s, it is for her writing that she is best remembered. She had acted with the likes of James Earl Jones and appeared in a production of Porgy and Bess. However, her memoir, entitled 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' is what first made her a household name. With the book, she made literary history as the writer of the first best-seller by an African-American woman for a non-fiction publication. Her poetry also led to more notoriety as a writer, including the 1975 anthology, 'Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well'. In 1993, Maya Angelou famously recited one of her poems during the inauguration of the US President, Bill Clinton.
When did Maya Angelou die?
Despite her ill health, Maya Angelou continued to write memoirs until her death. When she was found to have died by a nurse in May 2014, she was putting together a new work about her experiences with world leaders. This is something few African-American women of her generation could have done. She was buried on June 7th that year. It was a private memorial that featured speeches by her son, the TV producer Oprah Winfrey, the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and Bill Clinton.
What inspired Maya Angelou?
Maya Angelou said that her experiences inspired her to write; notably a rape she suffered as a child. In terms of her political activism, she said it was hearing Martin Luther King speak that most inspired her.