In 1969, at the age of 41, Maya Angelou, who died on May 28 at age 86 in Winston-Salem, N.C., published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was a memoir of her childhood and adolescent odyssey from Arkansas to California, during which she survived a cascade of traumatic events, including being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age seven and overcoming prejudice to become, at age 16, San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor.
It was the first autobiography by an African-American woman to achieve a wide readership, its searing frankness shattered taboos and had it remained Angelou’s lone achievement, the book would have been enough to earn her a place in literary history. Instead, she was a Renaissance woman who wrote 30 books – including additional memoirs, essays and poetry – and acted on Broadway, danced with Alvin Ailey, became a cabaret and calypso singer and in 2011 received AARP’s highest honor, the Andrus Award.
Here are some facts about Angelou and her remarkable life and achievements.
- She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, the daughter of a boarding-house proprietor and a dietitian, but grew up in Stamps, Ark., where her grandmother was the proprietor of the town’s only black-owned store.
- While working as a streetcar conductor, she educated herself by reading authors such as Dostoevsky and Chekhov.
- She took the name Angelou while dancing at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub in the 1950s. It was a variation of the last name of a Greek sailor to whom she was briefly married.
- In the mid-1950s, she toured 22 countries as an actress and singer in a State Department-sponsored production of Porgy and Bess.
- In 1959, she moved to New York City, where she performed off-Broadway in Jean Genet’s play The Blacks and organized a cabaret to raise money for civil rights activists in the South.
- After living for several years in Ghana, she returned to the United States in 1966 and wrote Black, Blues, Black, a 10-part television series about the role of African culture in America.
- She was nominated for a Tony Award for her Broadway performance in the 1973 play Look Away, and played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the 1977 TV miniseries Roots.
- She won three Grammy awards for recordings of her poetry and prose.
- She stopped celebrating her birthday, April 4, after her close friend Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated on that day in 1968. Instead, for the next 40 years, she sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, until her death in 2008.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 17 languages. It was made into a television movie in 1979, with a script co-authored by Angelou.
- In 1981, she joined the faculty of Wake Forest University, where she became a professor of American studies.
- In 1993, President Bill Clinton invited her to read a poem at his first inauguration, making her only the second poet in U.S. history – Robert Frost was the first, in 1961 – to be so honored.
- In 2011, Angelou received AARP’s highest honor, the Andrus Award, which is given to an individual who embodies the principles of AARP’s founder, Ethel Percy Andrus.
- Also in 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Photo: Jeff Daly/Invision/AP
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