June 2014

Maya Angelou, a Phenomenal Woman

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou enjoyed entertaining family and friends at her home in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.

Like the title of one of her most famous poems, Maya Angelou (AN•juh•loh) was truly a “phenomenal woman.” When she died at the age of 86 on May 28, 2014, she was remembered for being a great poet, author, and many other things. She was also a civil rights activist, teacher, singer, actor, dancer, and inspirational speaker. She was a mother and a grandmother as well, and a friend to many.

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her brother called her “Maya” and the name stuck. Later, when she became a performer, she began to use “Angelou,” a version of her first husband’s last name. As a young girl, Angelou lived with her grandmother in the rural community of Stamps, Arkansas. At age nine, she started keeping a journal of her writing.

When her mother moved to San Francisco, Angelou moved there to join her. Angelou won a scholarship to study dance and drama at the California Labor School. She also became San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor.

In the 1950s, Angelou focused on a career as a performer, singing calypso and acting in plays. Calypso is a style of Caribbean music that started in Trinidad and Tobago. Angelou also became involved in the Civil Rights movement. She worked with civil rights leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks.

After Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Angelou began to write about her life growing up in the South. As an African American girl, she had faced discrimination and segregation. Her writing became the book that made her famous, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She made history when it became the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. Angelou continued to write, publishing several more autobiographies as well as books of poetry.

Angelou never completed college, but she was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees during her lifetime. She taught American Studies for many years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Friends and colleagues liked to call her Dr. Angelou.

In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony. Written especially for that event, it became one of her most famous poems. In recent years, she continued to write, teach, speak, and win awards. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

When Maya Angelou’s death was announced, people around the world responded with their condolences on social media. Many shared a favorite quotation from this very quotable woman. One of her best-known quotations was about teaching. She said, “When you learn, teach, when you get, give.”

A memorial service for Maya Angelou was held on June 7 at Wake Forest University. The service was just for family and friends, but the university streamed it online. First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, and many others shared their treasured memories of Angelou.

Image credit: ©Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times via Redux Pictures

Related Links

Question 1
What made Maya Angelou famous?

Question 2
At which university did Maya Angelou teach?

Rate this story:
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars