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Maya Angelou in North Carolina, 2008. Photo by Talbot Troy. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy [ Wikimedia Commons.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, 1993
Born Marguerite Ann Johnson
4, 1928 (1928-04-04) (age 94)
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
Occupation Poet, civil rights activist, dancer, film producer, television producer, playwright, film director, author, actress, professor
Ethnicity African American
Literary movement Civil rights

Maya Angelou (File:Loudspeaker.svg /ˈm.ə ˈænəl/[1][2] (born April 4, 1928)[3] is an American poet and prose author.



Angelou has been called "America's most visible black female autobiographer" (by scholar Joanne M. Braxton). She is best known for her series of 6 autobiographical volumes, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences.[4] The 1st and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her 1st 17 years. It brought her international recognition, and was nominated for a National Book Award. She has been awarded over 30 honorary degrees and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie.[5]

Angelou was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s, was active in the Civil Rights movement, and served as Northern Coordinator of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Since 1991, she has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she holds the 1st lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies.

Since the 1990s she has made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, the 1st poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. In 1995, she was recognized for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.

With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was heralded as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. She is highly respected as a spokesperson for Black people and women. Angelou's work is often characterized as autobiographical fiction.[6] She has, however, made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Her books, centered on themes such as identity, family, and racism, are often used as set texts in schools and universities internationally. Some of her more controversial work has been challenged or banned in US schools and libraries.


She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928,[3] the second child of Bailey Johnson, a navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse, and card dealer.[7] Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya", shortened from "my-a-sister".[8] The details of Angelou's life described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tend to be inconsistent. Her biographer, Mary Jane Lupton, has explained that when Angelou has spoken about her life, she has done so eloquently but informally and "with no time chart in front of her".[9]

And Angelou's life has certainly been a full one: from the hardscrabble Depression era South to pimp, prostitute, supper-club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King and Malcolm, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln.--Reviewer John McWhorter, The New Republic[10]

Evidence suggests that Angelou's family is descended from the Mende people of West Africa.[11][note 1] A 2008 PBS documentary found that Angelou's maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, who had been emancipated after the Civil War, became pregnant by her former white owner, John Savin. Savin forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. After indicting Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, a grand jury found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County poorhouse in Missouri with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, who became Angelou's grandmother. Angelou described Lee as "that poor little Black girl, physically and mentally bruised."[12]


Paperback book cover illustration, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The first 17 years of Angelou's life are documented in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When Angelou was 3, and her brother 4, their parents' "calamitous marriage"[13] ended. Their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas alone by train to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. Henderson prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because "she made wise and honest investments".[7]

4 years later, the children's father "came to Stamps without warning"[14] and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis. At age eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty, but was jailed for a day. 4 days after his release, he was killed, probably by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute for almost 5 years,[15] believing, as she has stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone..."[16]

According to Angelou's biographers it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.[17]

Shortly after Freeman's murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again.[18] Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Dickens, Shakespeare,[19] Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors that would affect her life and career,[17] as well as Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.[20] When Angelou was 14, she and her brother returned to live with her mother in Oakland, California. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School while studying dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.[21] Three weeks after completing school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet.[22] At the end of Angelou's 3rd autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, her son changed his name to "Guy Johnson".[23]

Angelou's 2nd autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19 and "depicts a single mother's slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime."[24] Angelou worked as "the front woman / business manager for prostitutes,"[25] restaurant cook, and prostitute. She moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education.[24]

Adulthood and early career, 1951-1961[]

Angelou has been married 3 times or more (something she has never clarified, "for fear of sounding frivolous").[8][26] In her 3rd autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, Angelou describes her 3-year marriage to Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Enistasious (Tosh) Angelos in 1951, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother.[27][28] She took modern dances classes during this time, and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Angelou and Ailey formed a dance team, calling themselves "Al and Rita", and performed throughout San Francisco, but never became successful. She studied African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, and her new husband and son moved with her to New York City, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.[29]

File:Miss calypso.JPG

Cover art of Angelou's 1957 album, Miss Calypso.

After Angelou's marriage ended, she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco, including the nightclub The Purple Onion, where she sang and danced calypso music.[30] Up to that point she went by the name of "Marguerite Johnson", or "Rita", but changed her professional name to, at the strong suggestion of her managers and supporters at The Purple Onion, "Maya Angelou", a "distinctive name"[31] that set her apart and captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances. During 1954 and 1955 Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of trying to learn the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages.[32] In 1957, riding on the popularity of calypso,[33] Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso,[34] which was reissued as a CD in 1996.[35] She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.[33][note 2]

As Angelou described in her 4th autobiography, The Heart of a Woman, she met novelist James O. Killens in 1959, and at his urging, moved to New York to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several major African American authors, including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield, and was published for the first time.[36] After meeting and hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1960, she and Killens organized "the legendary"[37] Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was named SCLC's Northern Coordinator. According to Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and "eminently effective".[38] Angelou began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.[39]

Africa to Caged Bird, 1961-1969[]

In 1961, Angelou met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make; they never officially married.[40] Also in 1961, she performed in Jean Genet's The Blacks, along with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson.[41] She and Guy moved to Cairo later that year with Make,[42] where Angelou worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper The Arab Observer.[43]

In 1962 her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Accra, Ghana, he to attend college, where he was seriously injured in an automobile accident.[note 3] Angelou remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1965, later relating her experiences as an African American residing in Ghana in her fifth autobiography, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes. She became an administrator at the University of Ghana,[45] and was active in the African-American expatriate community.[46] She was a feature editor for The African Review,[47] a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana, and worked and performed for Ghana's National Theatre. She performed in a revival of The Blacks in Geneva and Berlin.[48]

File:Ghana-Greater Accra.png

Most of Angelou's time in Africa was spent in Accra, Ghana.

In Accra, she became close friends with Malcolm X during his visit in the early 1960s.[note 4] As she wrote about in her sixth and final autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), Angelou returned to the US to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1965; he was assassinated shortly afterward. Devastated and adrift, she joined her brother in Hawaii, where she resumed her singing career, and then moved back to Los Angeles to focus on her writing career. She worked as a market researcher in Watts and witnessed the riots in the summer of 1965. She acted in and wrote plays, and returned to New York in 1967. She met her life-long friend Rosa Guy and renewed her friendship with James Baldwin, whom she met in Paris in the 1950s and called "my brother",[50] during this time. Her friend Jerry Purcell provided Angelou with a stipend to support her writing.[51]

In 1968, King asked her to organize a march. She agreed, but "postpones again",[37] and in what Angelou's biographers call "a macabre twist of fate",[52] he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4).[note 5] Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by Baldwin. As her biographers state, "If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou's spirit and creative genius".[52] Despite almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated "Blacks, Blues, Black!", a ten-part series of documentaries which dealt with the connection between blues music and Black Americans' African heritage, as well as what Angelou called the "Africanisms still current in the U.S."[54] for the National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS. Also in 1968, inspired by a dinner party she attended with her friend James Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and Feiffer's wife Judy, and challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis, she wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.[55]

Later career[]

Angelou's Georgia, Georgia, produced by a Swedish film company and filmed in Sweden, the first screenplay written by a Black woman,[56] was released in 1972. She also wrote the film's soundtrack, despite having very little additional input in the filming of the movie.[57] Angelou married Welsh carpenter and ex-husband of Germaine Greer, Paul du Feu, in San Francisco in 1973. In the next 10 years, as her biographers stated, "She had accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime".[58] She worked as a composer, writing for singer Roberta Flack and composing movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts and documentaries, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays, and was named visiting professors of several colleges and universities. She was "a reluctant actor",[59] and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in Look Away. In 1977 Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. She began being awarded with hundreds of awards and honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world.

In all the days of my life, I never met a woman who was more completely herself than Maya Angelou. She fully inhabits and owns every space of herself with no pretense and no false modesty. She has a certain way of being in this world. When you walk into a room and she's there, you know it. She is fully aware of what it means to be human, and share that humanity with others. Being around her makes you want to do the same, be more fully your own self.--Oprah Winfrey, 2008[60]

In the late '70s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey's close friend and mentor.[61] In 1981, Angelou and du Feu divorced. Her attempts at producing and directing films were frustrated throughout the 80s. She returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina,[2] where she taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing.[62] Also in 1981, the mother of her son Guy's child disappeared with him; it took eight years to find Angelou's grandson.[63]

In 1993, Antelou recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.[64] Her recitation resulted in more fame and recognition for her previous works, and broadened her appeal "across racial, economic, and educational boundaries".[65] The recording of the poem was awarded a Grammy Award.[66] In June 1995, she delivered what Richard Long called her "second 'public' poem",[67] entitled "A Brave and Startling Truth", which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Angelou finally achieved her goal of directing a feature film in 1996, Down in the Delta, which featured actors such as Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes.[68]

Angelou's mother Vivian Baxter and brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., both of whom were important figures in her life and her books, died; her mother in 1991 and her brother in 2000 after a series of strokes.[69] Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit[64] in a customized tour bus, something she continued into her eighties.[8][70] In 2000, she created a successful collection of products for Hallmark, including greeting cards and decorative household items.[71][72] Over thirty years after Angelou began writing her life story, Angelou completed the sixth and final autobiography in her series of six, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, in 2002.[73]

Angelou campaigned for Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential primaries.[53][74] When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Senator Barack Obama,[75] who won the election and became the first African American president of the United States. She stated, "We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism".[76] In late 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.[77] They consisted of over 340 boxes of documents that featured her handwritten notes on yellow legal pads for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a 1982 telegram from Coretta Scott King, fan mail, and personal and professional correspondence from colleagues such as Robert Loomis.[78]


  1. In her fifth autobiography All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1987), Angelou recounts being identified, on the basis of her appearance, as part of the Bambara people, a subset of the Mande (Angelou (1987), pp. 206—207).
  2. Reviewer John M. Miller calls Angelou's performance of her song, "All That Happens in the Marketplace" the "most genuine musical moment in the film".
  3. Guy Johnson, who as a result of this accident in Accra and one in the late 1960s, underwent a series of spinal surgeries. He also, like his mother, became a writer and poet.[44]
  4. Angelou called her friendship with Malcolm X "a brother/sister relationship".[49]
  5. Angelou did not celebrate her birthday for many years, choosing instead to send flowers to King's widow Coretta Scott King.[53]


Main article: List of Maya Angelou works

Although Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, without the intention of writing a series,[79] she went on to write 5 additional autobiographical volumes. They are distinct in style and narration. The volumes "stretch over time and place",[80] from Arkansas to Africa and back to the US. They take place from the beginnings of World War II to King's assassination.[80] As author Lyman B. Hagen states, Angelou has "opened her life to public scrutiny through her works".[81] Like Caged Bird, the events in these books are episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but do not follow a strict chronology. Later books in the series include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). Angelou's book of essays, Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now (1993), contains materials that are autobiographical in content.[82] Critics have tended to judge Angelou's subsequent autobiographies "in light of the first",[79] with Caged Bird receiving the highest praise. Angelou has used the same editor throughout her writing career, Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, who has been called "one of publishing's hall of fame editors."[83] Angelou has said regarding Loomis: "We have a relationship that's kind of famous among publishers".[84]

All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated". --Maya Angelou[85]

Angelou's long and extensive career also includes poetry, plays, screenplays for television and film, directing, acting, and public speaking. She is a prolific writer of poetry; her volume Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize,[5] and she was chosen by President Bill Clinton to recite her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" during his inauguration in 1993.[64]

Angelou has had a successful career as a playwright and actress. In 1977, she appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a black woman to be produced.[86] At the age of seventy, Angelou was the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, in 1998.[87] In 2006 she had a cameo in Madea's Family Reunion as "May". In 2008, Angelou wrote poetry for and narrated the M.K. Asante, Jr. film The Black Candle.


Main article: Poetry of Maya Angelou

Although Angelou is best known for her 7 autobiographies, she has also been a prolific and successful poet. She has been called "the black woman's poet laureate", and her poems have been called the anthems of African Americans.[88] Angelou studied and began writing poetry at a young age, and used poetry and other great literature to cope with her rape as a young girl, as described in Caged Bird.[89] According to scholar Yasmin Y. DeGout, literature also affects Angelou's sensibilities as the poet and writer she becomes, especially the "liberating discourse that would evolve in her own poetic canon".[90]

Many critics consider Angelou's autobiographies more important than her poetry.[91] Although her books have been best-sellers, her poetry has not been perceived as seriously her prose and has been understudied.[92] Her poems are more interesting when she recites and performs them, and many critics emphasize the public aspect of her poetry.[93] Angelou's lack of critical acclaim has been attributed to both the public nature of many of her poems and to Angelou's popular success, and to critics' preferences for poetry as a written form rather than a verbal, performed one.[94] Burr has countered Angelou's critics by condemning them for not taking into account Angelou's larger purposes in her writing: "to be representative rather than individual, authoritative rather than confessional".[95]

Style and genre[]

Angelou's use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and development of theme, setting, plot, and language has often resulted in the placement of her books into the genre of autobiographical fiction, but Angelou has characterized them as autobiographies.[96] As Lauret has stated, Angelou made a deliberate attempt in her books to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre.[97] Lupton has insisted that all of Angelou's autobiographies conform to the genre's standard structure: they are written by a single author, they are chronological, and they contain elements of character, technique, and theme.[6] Angelou has also recognized that there are fictional aspects to her books. Lupton has stated that Angelou has tended to "diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth",[98] i which has paralleled the conventions of much of African American autobiography written during the abolitionist period of US history, when the truth was censored out of the need for self-protection.[98][99] Angelou has acknowledged that she has followed the slave narrative tradition of "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning 'we'".[79] Hagen places Angelou in the long tradition of African American autobiography, but insists that she has created a unique interpretation of the autobiographical form.[100]

The challenge for much of African American literature is that its authors have had to confirm its status as literature before it could accomplish its political goals, which is why Robert Loomis, Angelou's editor, was able to dare her into writing Caged Bird by challenging her to write an autobiography that could be considered "high art".[101] According to scholar Sondra O'Neale, whereas Angelou's poetry can be placed within the African American oral tradition, her prose "follows classic technique in nonpoetic Western forms".[102] O'Neale also states that although Angelou avoids a "monolithic Black language",[103] it is obvious through direct dialogue that she is capable of what O'Neale calls a "more expected ghetto expressiveness".[103]

When Angelou wrote Caged Bird at the end of the 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted features of literature at the time was "organic unity", and one of her goals was to create a book that satisfied that criteria.[101] The events in her books are episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but their arrangements do not follow a strict chronology. Instead, they are placed to emphasize the themes of her books.[101] English literature scholar Valerie Sayers has asserted that "Angelou's poetry and prose are similar". They both rely on her "direct voice", which alternates steady rhythms with syncopated patterns and makes use of similes and metaphors (i.e., the caged bird).[104] According to Hagen, Angelou's works have been influenced by both conventional literary and the oral traditions of the African American community. For example, she references over 100 literary characters throughout her books and poetry.[105] In addition, she uses the elements of blues music, including the act of testimony when speaking of one's life and struggles, ironic understatement, and the use of natural metaphors, rhythms, and intonations.[106] Angelou, instead of depending upon plot, uses personal and historical events to shape her books.[107]

Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has used the same "writing ritual"[20] for many years. She wakes at 5 in the morning and checks into a hotel room, where the staff has been instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She writes on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible, and leaves by the early afternoon. She averages 10-12 pages of material a day, which she edits down to 3 or 4 pages in the evening.[108] Angelou goes through this process to "enchant" herself, and as she has said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, "relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang."[16] She places herself back in the time she is writing about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to "tell the human truth"[16] about her life. Angelou has stated that she plays cards in order to get that place of enchantment, in order to access her memories more effectively. She has stated, "It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!"[16] She does not find the process cathartic; rather, she has found relief in "telling the truth".[16]

Themes in Angelou's autobiographies[]


As feminist scholar Maria Lauret has indicated, Angelou and other female writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s used the autobiography to reimagine ways of writing about women's lives and identities in a male-dominated society. Lauret has made a connection between Angelou's autobiographies, which Lauret called "fictions of subjectivity" and "feminist first-person narratives", and fictional first-person narratives (such as The Women's Room by Marilyn French and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing) written during the same period. Both genres employ the narrator as protagonist and "rely upon the illusion of presence in their mode of signification".[109] Lauret has also stated that "the formation of female cultural identity"[110] has been woven into Angelou's narratives. Angelou has presented herself as a role model for African American women by reconstructing the Black woman's image throughout her autobiographies, and has used her many roles, incarnations, and identities to "signify multiple layers of oppression and personal history".[110] Lauret has viewed Angelou's themes of the individual's strength and ability to overcome throughout Angelou's autobiographies as well.[110] Author Hilton Els has insisted that while Angelou's original goal was to "tell the truth about the lives of black women",[37] her goal evolved in her later volumes to document the ups and downs of her own life. Els has stated that Angelou's autobiographies have the same structure: they give a historical overview of the places she was living in at the time and how she coped within the context of a larger white society, as well as the ways that her story played out within that context. Critic Selwyn Cudjoe agreed with Els, and stated that Angelou, especially in her third autobiography,

Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, successfully demonstrated "the inviolability of the [African American] personhood"[111] as she expanded positive interactions with whites. In Angelou's second volume, Gather Together in My Name, Angelou was concerned with what it meant to be a black female in the US, but she focused upon herself at a certain point in history. As Cudjoe has said, "It is almost as though the incidents in the text were simply 'gathered together' under the name of Maya Angelou".[37]


One of the most important themes in Angelou's autobiographies are "kinship concerns",[112] from the character-defining experience of her parents' abandonment to her relationships with her son, husbands, and lovers throughout all of her books.[112] African American literature scholar Dolly McPherson has insisted that Angelou's concept of family throughout her books must be understood in the light of the way in which she and her older brother were displaced by their parents at the beginning of Caged Bird.[113] Motherhood is a "prevailing theme"[79] in all of Angelou's autobiographies, specifically her experiences as a single mother, a daughter, and a granddaughter.[79] Lupton believes that Angelou's plot construction and character development were influenced by this mother/child motif found in the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Jessie Fauset.[114]

Scholar Mary Burgher has stated that black women autobiographers like Angelou have debunked the stereotypes of African American mothers of "breeder and matriarch" and have presented them as having "a creative and personally fulfilling role".[115] Scholar Sondra O'Neale agrees, and insists that Angelou's autobiographies present black women differently than literature had portrayed them up to that time. O'Neale goes on to state that "no Black woman in the world of Angelou's books are losers",[99] and that Angelou herself is the third generation of "brilliantly resourceful females" who overcame the obstacles of racism and oppression.[99]

Lupton has stated that the one unifying theme that connects all of Angelou's autobiographies is what she has called "the mother-child pattern".[116] Angelou describes throughout her books her connection of mother and child—with herself and her son Guy, with herself and her own mother, and with herself and her grandmother. Her desire for security for Guy drives her to marry Tosh Angelos in Singin' and Swingin', and drives many of her romantic relationships throughout her books and her life.[117] Although Angelou's grandmother ("Momma") dies early in the series, in Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, her 3rd autobiography, Momma is quoted throughout the entire series.[118] Other themes include the absent and/or substitute father, the use of food as a psychosexual symbol, and the use of staring or gazing for dramatic and symbolic effect. They are also related through literary elements such as the ambivalent autobiographical voice, the flexibility of structure to illustrate the disjointedness of life, and Angelou's commentary on character and theme.[116]


Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage described in the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, "Sympathy", as a "central image" throughout all of her autobiographies.[22][119] Like elements within a prison narrative, the caged bird represents Angelou's confinement resulting from racism and oppression.[120] This metaphor also invokes the "supposed contradiction of the bird singing in the midst of its struggle".[22] At least one reviewer who criticized Angelou for harboring "a fanatic hostility expressed toward all white people".[82] Writer Lyman B. Hagen disagrees, stating that like Angelou's friend and mentor Langston Hughes, Angelou "explains and illuminates"[121] the condition of African Americans in the US, but without alienating her readers. For example, Angelou promotes the importance of hard work, a common theme in slave narratives, throughout all her autobiographies, in order to break the African American stereotype of laziness.[122]

Critic Pierre A. Walker has placed Angelou's autobiographies in the African American literature tradition of political protest written in the years following the American Civil Rights movement. Walker has emphasized that the unity of Angelou's autobiographies serves to underscore one of Angelou's central themes: the injustice of racism and how to fight it.[101] Walker has also stated that Angelou's biographies, beginning with Caged Bird, consist of "a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression".[101] This sequence leads Angelou, as the protagonist, from "helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest"[101] throughout all 6 of her autobiographies. Hagen states that Angelou changes, in the course of her autobiographies, her views about Black-white relationships and learns to accept different points of views. It is Angelou's "mental adjustments" regarding race, and specifically, about white people, that provides Angelou with freedom. He adds that one of Angelou's "universal themes" is that humans are more alike than different.[123]


Main article: List of awards and nominations received by Maya Angelou

Angelou is one of the most honored writers of her generation. She has been honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors include a National Book Award nomination for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie,[5] a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and 3 Grammys for her spoken word albums.[124][125] In 1995, Angelou's publishing company, Bantam Books, recognized her for having the longest-running record (2 years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.[126] In 1998, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[127] She has served on two presidential committees,[128] and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000,[129] the Lincoln Medal in 2008,[130] and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.[131] Musician Ben Harper has honored Angelou with his song "I'll Rise", which includes words from her poem, "Still I Rise."[132] She has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees.[133]


File:Angelou Obama.jpg

President Barack Obama presenting Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011

When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. Up to that point, black female writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters. Writer Julian Mayfield, who called Caged Bird "a work of art that eludes description",[37] has insisted that Angelou's autobiographies set a precedent not only for other black women writers, but for the genre of autobiography as a whole.[37] Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou had become recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women.[79] It made her "without a doubt, ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer",[4] and "a major autobiographical voice of the time".[134] As writer Gary Younge has said, "Probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou's life literally is her work".[8]

Author Hilton Als has insisted that although Caged Bird was an important contribution to the increase of black feminist writings in the 1970s, he attributed its success less to its originality than with "its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist",[37] or the time in which it was written, at the end of the American Civil Rights movement. Als also insisted that Angelou's writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, has freed many other female writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world".[37] Angelou biographer Joanne M. Braxton has insisted that Caged Bird was "perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing" autobiography written by an African-American woman in its era.[4]

Critical reception[]

Angelou's books, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have been criticized by many parents, causing their removal from school curricula and library shelves. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to Caged Bird's depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence.[135] Some have been critical of the book's sexually explicit scenes, use of language, and irreverent religious depictions.[136] Caged Bird appeared third on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.[137] It was fifth on the ALA's list of the ten most challenged books of the 21st century (2000–2005),[138] and was one of the ten books most frequently banned from high school and junior high school libraries and classrooms.[15]

The week after Angelou recited her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, sales of the paperback version of her books and poetry rose by 300–600%. Bantam Books had to reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand. Random House, which published Angelou's hardcover books and published the poem later that year, reported that they sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 1200% increase.[139] Angelou has famously said, in response to criticism regarding using the details of her life in her work, "I agree with Balzac and 19th-century writers, black and white, who say, 'I write for money'".[8]

Uses in education[]

Angelou's autobiographies have been used in narrative and multicultural approaches in teacher education. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has used I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name to train teachers how to "talk about race" in their classrooms. Due to Angelou's use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony, readers of Angelou's autobiographies wonder what she "left out" and are unsure about how to respond to the events Angelou describes. Angelou's depictions of her experiences of racism force white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own "privileged status". Glazier found that although critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genre of African-American autobiography and on her literary techniques, readers react to her storytelling with "surprise, particularly when [they] enter the text with certain expectations about the genre of autobiography".[140]

Educator Daniel Challener, in his 1997 book, Stories of Resilience in Childhood, analyzed the events in Caged Bird to illustrate resiliency in children. Challener insisted that Angelou's book provides a "useful framework" for exploring the obstacles many children like Maya face and how a community helps these children succeed as Angelou did.[141] Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has reported using Caged Bird to supplement scientific theory and research in the instruction of child development topics such as the development of self-concept and self-esteem, ego resilience, industry versus inferiority, effects of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friendship relations, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty, and identity formation in adolescence. He found the book a "highly effective" tool for providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts.[142]



  • The Poetry of Maya Angelou, 1969.
  • Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie. New York: Random House, 1971 (many reprintings).
  • Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. New York: Random House, 1975 (many reprintings).
  • And Still I Rise.. New York: Random House, 1978
    • , new version published as Still I Rise ( illustrated by Diego Rivera; edited by Linda Sunshine). . New York: Random House, 2001 (many reprintings).
  • Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?. New York: Random House, 1983 (many reprintings).
  • Poems. (4 volumes), New York: Bantam, 1986.
  • Now Sheba Sings the Song (illustrated by Tom Feelings). New York: Dutton, 1987.
  • I Shall Not Be Moved. New York: Random House, 1990 (many reprintings).
  • On the Pulse of Morning. New York: Random House, 1993 (many reprintings).
  • The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994 (many reprintings).
  • A Brave and Startling Truth. New York: Random House, 1995.
  • Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women. New York: Random House, 1995
    • new edition published as Phenomenal Woman (paintings by Paul Gaugin, edited by Linda Sunshine). New York: Random House, 2000.
  • Amazing Peace. New York: Random House, 2005




  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970 (many reprintings).
  • Gather Together in My Name. New York: Random House, 1974 (many reprintings).
  • Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry like Christmas.. New York: Random House, 1976.
  • The Heart of a Woman. New York: Random House, 1981.
  • All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes. New York: Random House, 1986 (many reprintings).
  • A Song Flung up to Heaven. New York: Random House, 2002.
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: The collected autobiographies of Maya Angelou (omnibus edition of all six autobiographies). New York: Modern Library, 2004.
  • Mom & Me & Mom. New York: Random House, 2013.


  • Lessons in Living. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Even the Stars Look Lonesome. New York: Random House, 1997.
  • Hallelujah! The welcome table. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Mother: A cradle to hold me. New York: Random House, 2006.
  • Letter to my Daughter. New York: Random House, 2008.


  • Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship (selection from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) (illustrated by Etienne Delessert). Minneapolis, MN: Redpath Press, 1986.
  • Life Doesn't Frighten Me (poem), edited by Sara Jane Boyers, illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat). New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1993.
  • (With others) Soul Looks Back in Wonder (illustrated by Tom Feelings). New York: Dial Press, 1993.
  • My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (photos by Margaret Courtney-Clarke). New York, NY: Crown, 1994.
  • Kofi and His Magic (photos by Margaret Courtney-Clarke). New York: Crown, 1996.
  • Angelina of Italy (illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell). New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Izak of Lapland (illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell). New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Renie Marie of France (illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell). New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Mikale of Hawaii (illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell). New York: Random House, 2004.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[143]

Plays performed[]

  • (With Godfrey Cambridge) Cabaret for Freedom (musical revue), produced at Village Gate Theatre, New York, 1960.
  • The Least of These (two-act drama), produced in Los Angeles, 1966.
  • (Adapter) Sophocles, Ajax (two-act drama), produced at Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, 1974.
  • (And director) And Still I Rise (one-act musical), produced in Oakland, CA, 1976.
  • (Author of poems for screenplay) Poetic Justice (screenplay), Columbia Pictures, 1993.
  • (Author of lyrics, with Alistair Beaton) King, book by Lonne Elder, III, music by Richard Blackford, London, 1990.
  • Also author of the play Gettin' up Stayed on My Mind, 1967, a drama, The Best of These, a two-act drama, The Clawing Within, 1966, a two- act musical, Adjoa Amissah, 1967, and a one-act play, Theatrical Vignette, 1983. 

Except where noted, information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[143]

See also[]



  • Baisnée, Valérie (1994). Gendered Resistance: The Autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir, Maya Angelou, Janet Frame and Marguerite Duras. Amsterdam: Rodopi Publishers. ISBN 90-420-0109-7
  • Braxton, Joanne M., ed. (1999). Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2
    • Braxton, Joanne M. "Symbolic Geography and Psychic Landscapes: A Conversation with Maya Angelou", pp. 3—20
    • Lupton, Mary Jane. "Singing the Black Mother", pp. 129—148
    • Tate, Claudia. "Maya Angelou: An Interview", pp. 149—158
  • Evans, Mari, ed. (1984). Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-17124-2
    • Angelou, Maya. "Shades and Slashes of Light", pp, 3—5
    • Cudjoe, Selwyn R. "Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement", pp. 6—24
    • O'Neale, Sondra "Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou's Continuing Autobiography", pp. 25—36
  • Foerstel, Herbert N. (2006). Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Information Age Publishing LLC. ISBN 1593113749
  • Gillespie, Marcia Ann, Rosa Johnson Butler, and Richard A. Long. (2008). Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-385-51108-7
  • Hagen, Lyman B. (1997). Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou. Lanham, Maryland: University Press. ISBN 0-7618-0621-0
  • Long, Richard. (2005). "Maya Angelou". Smithsonian 36, no. 8: 84—85
  • Lauret, Maria (1994). Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-4150-6515-1
  • Lupton, Mary Jane (1998). Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30325-8
  • McPherson, Dolly A. (1990). Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. ISBN 0-820411-39-6
  • McWhorter, John. (2002). "Saint Maya." The New Republic 226, no. 19: 35—41.
  • Moyer, Homer E. (2003). The R.A.T. Real-World Aptitude Test: Preparing Yourself for Leaving Home. Sterling, Virginia: Capital Books. ISBN 1-931868-42-5
  • Sartwell, Crispin. (1998). Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226735-27-3


[53][16][65][50][47][4][56][13] [19] [14][74][22][18] [28] [29] [36] [48] [51] [70] [71] [3] [17] [21] [25] [117] [30] [31] [35] [39] [40] [41] [42] [43] [45] [46] [52] [57] [59] [58] [62] [63] [66] [68] [69] [44] [73][2][27] [32] [38][33][49][34][67] [134][9] [7] [15] [23] [20] [26] [24] [12][10] [11][75][61][76][79][1][78][55][37][54][144][77][72][60][64][8][5] [6] [86] [87] [80] [81] [82] [83] [84] [85] [135] [136] [137] [138] [139] [140] [141] [142] [96] [97] [98] [99] [100] [104] [105] [106] [145] [146] [108] [147] [109] [110]


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