Maya Angelou was an African American writer most famous for her poems and series of autobiographies. She had a difficult childhood and had to struggle as a teenage mother before she achieved moderate success as a performer. Maya Angelou rose to international fame when her first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings became a bestseller. She wrote six more autobiographies, the last one as late as 2013, at the age of 85. Angelou was close to several people in her life including her mother Vivian, her brother Bailey and her son Guy. Know about the family, life, relationships, career and death of Maya Angelou through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 She had a close relationship with her brother Bailey Johnson Jr.

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in the city of St. Louis in Missouri, U.S. She was the second child of Bailey Johnson, a navy dietitian who had served in World War I, and his wife Vivian Baxter Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Marguerite’s parents divorced when she was 3 and, along with her elder brother Bailey Jr., she was sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her paternal grandmother Annie Henderson. Henderson was financially able and owner of the only general store in the black community of the town. It was her grandmother and most prominently her brother Bailey who were the most influential figures in her early life and with whom she shared the closest bond.

Maya Angelou and her mother Vivian Baxter
Maya Angelou with her mother Vivian Baxter

 

#2 She lost her voice thinking it was responsible for killing her rapist

Maya Angelou in her youth
Maya Angelou in her youth

Marguerite experienced the prevalent racial discrimination in Stamps, which she was to describe later in her works. She lived there until she was 14, apart from one visit to St. Louis when she was 8. The visit proved to be horrific as Marguerite was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman. She told her brother of the incident, who in turn informed other members of the family. Freeman was jailed for only one day but soon after his release, he was found kicked to death in a lot behind a slaughterhouse, most probably the doing of Marguerite’s uncles. Thinking that her voice was so powerful that it could kill people, Marguerite felt guilty and stopped talking, except to her beloved brother. She remained reclusive and mute for nearly five years till a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs Bertha Flowers, helped her regain her voice through books and communication.

#3 Maya Angelou became a mother in her teens

When she was 14, Marguerite and her brother moved to Oakland, California to live with their mother again. At the time of World War II, she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School in San Francisco. During this time she said she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. Marguerite had a short lived high school relationship which led to a pregnancy. Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, Marguerite gave birth to a son who she named Clyde. He would later change his name to Guy. Guy Johnson was the only child that Maya Angelou would have.

Guy Johnson
Guy Johnson – Son of Maya Angelou

 

#4 She described her relationship with her mom in her final autobiography

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
Cover art of Mom & Me & Mom – Maya Angelou’s seventh autobiography

Maya Angelou’s relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, grew after she became pregnant with Guy. Vivian supported Angelou through the birth of her son, even though at the time unmarried teenage mothers were often shamed and pushed into marrying the baby’s father. While she was struggling to be independent and raising a baby, Angelou knew she could turn to her mother for help if required. Maya explored her relationship with her mother in the seventh and final book in her series of autobiographies, Mom & Me & Mom. Angelou believed that while Vivian was a terrible mother of small children, she was the best possible mother Angelou could have as a young adult.

#5 She worked as a sex worker for a brief period during her teens

From the age of 17 to 19, Angelou went through a variety of jobs and relationships to provide for her son. During this time, she pimped for a lesbian couple and became a prostitute herself for a short duration. Later, after becoming an esteemed icon, Maya Angelou didn’t feel shame at her past or make any attempt to cover up these difficult years of her life. She, in fact, wrote about them in the second book in her series of autobiographies, Gather Together in My Name. Also, during this period, Angelou, just about avoided being getting addicted to drugs and almost lost her son due to a kidnapping.

 

#6 Her name is derived from a nickname and her first husband’s name

In 1951, at the age of 23, Maya Angelou married a Greek electrician and former sailor, Tosh Angelos. Their marriage proved to be short and ended in 1954. She had taken modern dance classes in this time and soon began her career as a professional dancer, during which she performed in various clubs, including the Purple Onion, a popular nightclub in San Francisco. Angelou was called “Maya” by her brother since she was a kid. The name was derived from “My” or “Mya Sister”. Due to suggestion of her managers at the Purple Onion, Maya changed her professional name from “Marguerite Johnson” to “Maya Angelou”, a combination of the name given by her brother and a version of her ex-husband’s last name.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

 

#7 Angelou had a brief relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make

In the mid-1950s, Angelou’s career as a performer began to take off. During 1954–55, she got a role in a touring production of the opera Porgy and Bess, and 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. Angelou began concentrating on her writing career by late 1950s. In 1961–62, she had a relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with Make to Cairo, along with her son. After her relationship with Make ended, Angelou moved to Accra, the capital of Ghana. In fact, she spent most of the 1960s abroad. She took various jobs during this period, including that of an editor and a freelance writer in journals; and that of an administrator at the University of Ghana.

Album Cover of Miss Calypso
Album Cover of Miss Calypso – Maya Angelou’s first album

 

#8 Martin Luther King Jr. died on her 40th birthday

In 1960, Maya Angelou met Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. She participated in the movement by organizing and starring in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also served as SCLC’s northern coordinator. In 1968, King was in touch with Angelou regarding civil rights activism but on April 4, he was assassinated. Incidentally, it was the 40th birthday of Maya Angelou. Due to this, Angelou didn’t celebrate her birthday for years. She also sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, till Coretta died in 2006.

Martin Luther King Jr. assassination article
A newspaper article about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

 

#9 Maya Angelou became an international star after her autobiography was published

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Cover of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou’s first autobiography

In 1969, Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published. The book became a bestseller immediately and remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years. It brought Angelou international fame and critical acclaim. Caged Bird was the first of seven autobiographies that Angelou would write, with the last one being published as late as 2013. It is her most renowned work and it set a precedent for the genre of African-American autobiography as a whole. Angelou also published three books of essays and several books of poetry. Apart from being a writer, she was also an actor, director and producer of plays, movies and television programs.

#10 She famously recited her poem at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration

In 1973, Maya Angelou married Welsh carpenter, Paul du Feu, in San Francisco. Their marriage lasted for around 8 years, till they got divorced in 1981. The same year, Angelou’s grandson, Colin, was kidnapped by her ex-daughter in law after she lost custody. It would take four long years till Colin was found and brought back home. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She thus became the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost did the same in 1961 at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. After the recitation, the sales of her works rose by 300 – 600 percent. Maya Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014 at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86 years old. Angelou received numerous honors during her life including the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Maya Angelou reciting On the Pulse of Morning
Maya Angelou reciting her poem ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993

 

Maya Angelou’s writing ritual

Beginning with her first autobiography Caged Bird, Maya Angelou followed the same writing ritual for years. She used to check into a hotel room after instructing the staff to remove all pictures from the walls. Then Angelou used to write 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.  She would write around ten to twelve pages by the afternoon and edited them down to three to four in the evening. Angelou said she went through this process to “enchant” herself to help her access her memories. She stated, “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!”

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