On April 4, 1928, Marguerite Annie Johnson was born to parents Bailey and Vivian Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri; Angelou was nicknamed "Maya" by her older brother Bailey Jr. As a three-year-old Maya and Bailey Jr moved to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother because their parents divorced. Their grandmother’s financial situation was more favorable than their parents because she owned a general store and could provide them with what they needed. An eight-year-old Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend while visiting her mother in St. Louis, Missouri. Eight-year-old Angelou testified against the man that raped her, as a result, a number of her uncles caught the man and beat him to death. Too young to fully understand why the man was beaten to death, young Angelou felt his death was her fault and did not speak a word for five years. During her high school years, she would attend schools in both Arkansas and California before she dropped out to become the first black woman streetcar conductor in San Francisco, California. She eventually re-enrolled into high school and graduated at the age of seventeen, three weeks later she gave birth to her only son.
Angelou would marry a Greek man named Tosh Angelos who was an electrician, once worked as a sailor and aspired to become a full-time musician. Angelou’s marriage to Tosh Angelos lasted only a few years before the couple divorced. Angelou would continue pursuing dance and even found herself a contemporary and dance student with the legendary Alvin Ailey. They grew a friendship that led to the two forming a dance pair called “Alvin & Rita” which performed for collegiate black Greek organizations. At the time Angelou lived in San Francisco, she remarried before moving to New York to study African dance under Pearl Primus, a notable Trinidadian dancer, a year later Angelou and her family moved back to San Francisco. Angelou was laying the foundation as a dancer and singer to one of the most extraordinary and influential careers a person could have. In 1954, Angelou divorced her second husband but found work as a Calypso dancer and singer in the Purple Onion nightclub. Following a suggestion by the owners of the Purple Onion, Angelou created her stage name "Maya Angelou" to use as a performer rather than her birth name. The uniqueness of her name helped her stand out from the other performers she was competing with.
Angelou was a very talented performer and even earned a role in the opera Porgy and Bess which allowed her to travel the world. The opera appeared in twenty-two countries exposing Angelou to a plethora of opportunities her career can offer. While visiting the various countries Angelou had a goal of learning as many languages as she could, as a result, she learned a number of different languages and cultures. In 1957, she recorded her first album as a singer titled Miss Calypso, following her success as a calypso singer and dancer. Angelou was finding success early as a performer, she appeared in plays on Broadway and through other vehicles, one play she appeared in was the inspiration behind the 1957 film Calypso Heat Wave, Angelou was the composer of the songs she sang in the film. She also acted in the play Cabaret for Freedom which she co-wrote with a man named Godfrey Cambridge.
In 1959, Angelou was inspired to become an author and even joined the Harlem Writers Guild where she learned from some of America’s most prolific authors; the incredible historian Dr. John Henrick Clarke was one of the writers Angelou learned from. The inspiration from the writers guild helped her become published within newspapers such as The Arab Observer and The Ghanaian Times, she also appeared on the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation programming which was produced in Accra, Ghana. While living in Ghana, Angelou became a feature editor for the African Review from 1964 to 1968, she also worked as an assistant administrator for the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana. After being inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, she became the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou would also work with Malcolm X to build his Organization of African American Unity until his untimely death.
In 1968, Angelou wrote, produced and narrated a ten-part documentary titled Blacks, Blues, Black!, which helped connect the Blues to the black people who created the music and the conditions they lived in. In 1969, Angelou published her first book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” which is a memoir of her early life. The book was a major success and led to her having a plethora of opportunities as a writer, performer, speaker, etc. She would write a number of books that told her story from various stages of her life; Gather Together in My Name, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, and Mom & Me & Mom are the names of the books. She wrote around thirteen poetry books, And Still I Rise is her most-well known poetry book.
Angelou wrote the screenplay Georgia, Georgia in 1972 which was produced by a Swedish film company, she also wrote the soundtrack for the screenplay. In 1970, she was nominated for the National Book Award, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, two Tony Award nominations in 1973, one Tony Award nomination in 1977, and she received the North Carolina Award in Literature in 1987. She was named Woman of the Year in communications by Ladies' Home Journal in 1976 and regarded as one of the most influential women by the Ladies' Home Journal in 1983. As a writer, she produced scripts for television shows Sister, Sister and Brewster’s Place. She wrote and produced her full-length film Sister, Sister before directing her first movie Down in the Delta in 1998.
Later in 1998, Angelou was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame, in the year 2000 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts, eight years later she received the Lincoln Medal. In 2014, Maya Angelou died as a legend that will never be forgotten. Her contributions to writing, music, film, television and public speaking are still felt to this day. Her historic poem And Still I Rise has inspired black women to become the greatest versions of themselves for decades. Angelou was a multi-talented blessing to black America and the world as a whole. Miss. Marguerite Annie Johnson, also known as Maya Angelou, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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