Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) is one of the most renowned figures of the twentieth century. She began her career as a singer and dancer; worked as a civil rights activist and journalist; wrote seven acclaimed autobiographies, some screenplays for movies and numerous popular poems; appeared in television shows; taught at Wake Forest University; and received many honors including the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here are the 10 major accomplishments and achievements from the illustrious career of African American writer Maya Angelou.
#1 She was a cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess
In the mid-1950s, Angelou began her career as a performer by singing and dancing to calypso music in clubs. In 1954, she got a role in a touring production of the opera Porgy and Bess. In 1957, her first album Miss Calypso was released. Miss Calypso was a moderate success but Angelou did not make any further records as a singer. The same year, she appeared in the American film Calypso Heat Wave, singing and performing her own compositions. In 1961, she performed in French dramatist Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, playing the role of the White Queen.
#2 She worked as an editor and freelance writer in various African journals
Maya Angelou was in Cairo in 1961–62. Here she worked as an associate editor of Arab Observer, an English-language weekly news magazine. In 1962, Angelou moved to Accra, the capital city of Ghana, and she stayed there till 1965. She became an administrator at the University of Ghana; served as a feature editor of the African Review, a journal initiated by African- American activist Julian Mayfield; was a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, a government-owned daily newspaper; wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana; and performed for Ghana’s National Theatre. In 1997, Angelou was honored on a postage stamp of Ghana.
#3 Angelou contributed to the Civil Rights Movement as a fundraiser and organizer
In 1960, Maya Angelou met Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. She helped to raise funds for Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a prominent civil rights organization, by organizing and starring in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom. Angelou then served as the Northern Coordinator of SCLC. Although she worked with SCLC for only six months, King was “grateful” for her several fundraising ventures. Angelou met famous human rights activist Malcolm X while she was in Ghana in early 1960s. She returned to U.S. to help Malcolm X build the Organization of Afro-American Unity, to promote cooperation among Africans and people of African descent in the Americas.
#4 Her autobiography Caged Bird is considered an influential book in the genre
In 1969, Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published. In it, she narrates her journey and experiences from when she was 3 years old to the time she became a mother at the age of 16. The book became an immediate bestseller and remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years. Caged Bird brought Angelou international fame and critical acclaim. It was nominated for National Book Award in 1970, has been translated into 17 languages, sold more than 1 million copies and still appears on college reading lists. Caged Bird is Maya Angelou’s most renowned work; and in 2011, Time Magazine placed it in its list of 100 most influential books written in English since 1923.
#5 Maya Angelou is considered an influential figure in autobiographical literature
Maya Angelou went on to write six more autobiographies including Gather Together in My Name (1974), which focuses on a difficult period in her life from the age of 17 to 19; and Mom & Me & Mom (2013), which focuses on her relationship with her mother. She also wrote three books of essays which are referred to as Angelou’s “wisdom books”; two cookbooks; few plays; and several books for children. But Maya Angelou remains best known for her seven autobiographies which set a precedent for not only other black women writers, but also the genre of autobiography as a whole.
#6 Angelou was the first female poet to recite a poem at a US Presidential inauguration
In 1971, Maya Angelou’s first collection of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, was published. It was a best-seller and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Angelou went on to publish several poetry collections. She remains one of the most popular poets and her poems have been called anthems of African Americans. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She thus became the second ever poet to be so honored, the first being Robert Frost, who recited “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
#7 She was the first black woman to write a screenplay of a major film
Maya Angelou wrote the screenplay and soundtrack of the 1972 Swedish-American drama film Georgia, Georgia. This was the first major release with a screenplay written by a black woman. Maya Angelou also wrote the screenplay of 1982 American drama television movie Sister, Sister and 1990 ABC drama series Brewster Place. In 1988, she directed the famous 1957 play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl for the Almeida Theatre, London. Maya Angelou also directed the 1998 American drama movie Down in the Delta, thus achieving her goal of directing a feature film.
#8 She was involved in a number of successful television series
Maya Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the 1977 television mini-series Roots and several times on the long-running American children’s television series Sesame Street. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the 1973 play Look Away. She also featured in the PBS television miniseries African American Lives 2. Angelou was involved in documentaries as a writer and a narrator. In late 1960s, she wrote, produced, and narrated Blacks, Blues, Black, a ten-part series of documentaries about the connection between blues music and black Americans’ African heritage. Angelou also narrated The Black Candle, a 2008 documentary about Kwanzaa, a festival observed by many African Americans.
#9 She was the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University
In the 1960s, Maya Angelou worked as a teacher in the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana. She had a long association with Wake Forest University, a research university in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which awarded her an honorary degree in 1977. In 1982, Angelou was named the University’s first Reynolds Professor of American Studies. She taught a variety of subjects and in an interview described herself as “a teacher who writes”. Since the 1990s, Maya Angelou also participated in the lecture circuit, making around 80 appearances a year.
#10 Angelou was awarded the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom
Maya Angelou won three Grammy Awards in the “Best Spoken Word” category including for an audio recording of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning”, which she read at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Angelou won numerous awards and honors throughout her diverse career. She was awarded over fifty honorary degrees and won accolades for her works in literature and films. In 1994, she was awarded the Spingarn Medal by NAACP; and in 2000, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by the United States Congress. In 2011, Maya Angelou was awarded by President Barack Obama the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States.