Even though Dr. Angelou herself and many around Arkansas cite this state as her home, Maya Angelou was not actually born in Arkansas. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Baxter Johnson on April 4, 1928. Her given name was “Marguerite Johnson.” Maya was a nickname given to her by her brother, Bailey. He called her “Maya” instead of “my sister.” She has had a life so vivid and full that is hard to sum up in a few paragraphs. She tells her own story best in her many autobiographical books.
Her parents divorced when Maya was very young and Maya and her brother were sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother. The bulk of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, deals with growing up in this segregated town. Although this book is normally required reading for anyone going to school in Arkansas, it is still considered controversial by many and was banned by many schools when it was originally published. It deals frankly with sex, racism and many mature issues.
One of the more poignant events in this autobiography is the description of the trauma Maya suffered at the age of eight. She was raped by one of her mother’s friends during one of her visits to St. Louis. A few days after telling her brother about the attack, she overheard news that her attacker had suffered a violent death. It was then that Maya stopped speaking for five years because she thought that her words killed her attacker. Even at this young age she was convinced that words could be powerful. It was with poetry that she finally found her voice again.
However, before she became a published poet she would have many ups and downs. She became an unwed mother at the age of 16. She would soon marry Tosh Angelos, a sailor, but the marriage would not last. Her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, deals with this period of her life.
She has had many jobs throughout her life. She was a dancer, an actor and even San Francisco’s first black woman conductor. In 1971, she was the first black woman to have an original screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, produced. She fought for civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in 1960 and, after moving to Cairo, became the associate editor of The Arab Observer, the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East.
She has received many honors including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her works of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die (1971) and And Still I Rise (1976). She is also a favorite among presidents. She was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and by President Jimmy Carter to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. A hometown president, Bill Clinton, requested her to write and deliver a poem for his 1993 presidential inauguration because she is his “favorite living poet.” For the occasion, she wrote On the Pulse of the Morning which soon became a bestselling book.