The arts serve as an integral part of culture and community. They unite people, tell stories, protest wrongs, and celebrate victories. Best known for her poetry and literary work, Maya Angelou drew on her own experience as a Black American, giving voice to a generation.
Angelou was a leader and an example to women and writers on how to lead a meaningful and resilient life. Born in 1928, Angelou grew up in Stamps, Arkansas, and Oakland, California. As a young girl, Angelou expressed interest in writing essays and poems; however, because it paid better, in the 1950s, Angelou was a professional calypso singer and dancer who recorded albums and toured in the United States, Europe, and Northern Africa.
By 1959, Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild, which was formed by a group of African American writers in New York City who wanted to support the publication of Black authors. She also participated in fundraising efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) where she met and befriended Coretta and Martin Luther King. Angelou became the president of the SCLC northern chapter. While preparing to tour with Dr. King on his Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King was assassinated on Maya Angelou’s 40th birthday.
One year later, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography of her early life, was published. A lyrical tale of personal strength amid childhood trauma and racism, it was one of the first autobiographies by a 20th-century Black woman to reach a wide readership. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings resonated with readers and was nominated for a National Book Award. Angelou filled six more volumes of memoirs and wrote numerous poetry volumes such as Pulitzer Prize-nominated Just Give me a Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971) and several essay collections.
Aside from a writing career, Angelou was the first Black woman to have a screenplay (Georgia, Georgia) produced in 1972, and she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in Roots in 1977. However, Maya Angelou received her greatest exposure in January 1993, when she delivered her inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” at the swearing-in of President Bill Clinton. The recipient of over 30 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world, Angelou received the Presidential medal of Freedom in 2010.
Maya Angelou died in 2014. She made an impact on American culture that transcended all genres of her art. She was the nation’s wise woman, a poet to presidents, an unapologetic conscience who became such a touchstone that grief over her loss poured from political leaders, celebrities, and ordinary people in generous doses. Angelou’s soul-stirring words inspire every one of us to recognize and embrace the possibility and potential we each hold.
Listen to Maya Angelou Read her poem, Phenomenal Woman, here.