Full Birth Name: Marguerite Annie Johnson
Born: April 4, 1928
Months lived: 1,033.
Zodiac Sign: Aries
Place born: St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis, Missouri
Ancestry: West Africa & unknown
Mother: Vivian Baxter, nurse and croupier
Father: Bailey Johnon, doorman and navy dietitian
Siblings: One year older brother, Bailey Jr.
Tosh Angelos, electrician, sailor (1951-1954)
Paul du Feu (1973-1981)
Children: 1, Guy Johnson
Height: 6′ 0″ (1.82 m)
Weight: 205 (estimated)
Pounds per Inch: 2.85
Kilograms per Centimeter: 2.98
Body Mass Index (BMI): 27.8 (estimated)
(18.5 to 25 is considered healthy)
Habits: mild drinking of sherry, long-time smoker
Years lived beyond estimated life span: 12
Death: May 28, 2014
Cause of Death: respiratory failure
Years lived: 86
Days Lived: 31,465
Months Lived: 1,033
In Maya’s background is a great-grandmother, Mary Lee, who was born into slavery. She was emancipated after the Civil War in 1865. As is so typical of the times, she was made pregnant by her former white slave owner, John Savin. John forced Mary to sign a false statement saying someone else was the child’s father. John was indicted for forcing Lee to sign that document, but found not guilty in a jury trial. Lee was then sent to a poorhouse in Missouri along with her child, who became Maya’s grandmother. In Mary’s time, the slaves had been freed, but it would be a hundred more years before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, of which Maya Angelou was a significant participant. Today, there are still many pockets of inequality in American society.
Maya Angelou’s full birth name was Marguerite Annie Johnson.
Also born in 1928 were Shirley Temple, Adam West, Andy Warhol, Fred Rogers, Che Guevara, James Garner, Fats Domino, Ralph Waite, Stanley Kubrick, Eddie Fisher, James Coburn, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau, Philip K. Dick, and Jeanne Cooper.
People born on April 4 in different years include Robert Downey Jr, Heath Ledger, James Roday, Risa Ray, David Blaine, and Lisa Schwartz.
She was an Aries, the sun sign, the first astrological sign of the zodiac.
Aries people are known to be “worldly and spiritual in equal measure.”
According to astrology.com: Aries are the leaders of the pack, first in line to get things going. Whether or not everything gets done is another question altogether… The leadership displayed by Aries is most impressive, so don’t be surprised if they can rally the troops against seemingly insurmountable odds — they have that kind of personal magnetism. An Aries won’t shy away from new ground, either… it’s their fearless trek into the unknown that often wins the day. Aries is a bundle of energy and dynamism…”
Maya’s father, Baily Johnson, was a doorman and a navy dietitian. Her mother was Vivian Johnson – born Vinian Baxter, a nurse and croupier.
Her nickname, “Maya” came from her brother, Bailey, Jr., older by one year, and is derived from “my” or “mya sister.”
Her parents separated when she was three, at which time she and her brother were shipped off by train – alone – to go live with their father’s mother, Annie Henderson.
Annie Henderson was financially well-off, even though the Great Depression had just started, because she owned the general store in Stamps, Arkansas. Stamps currently has a population of 2,131. It was probably less in 1931. The current racial makeup is 54% black and 44% white.
At the age of eight, her father arrived without warning in Stamps, Arkansas, and took Maya and her brother from her prosperous grandmother – in a time when very few black people were prosperous, and brought them back to their mother in St. Louis, Missouri.
This was not a good time for the eight-year-old, as she was raped and abused by a man named Freeman, who was her mother’s boyfriend.
Freeman was found out when Maya told her brother, who told an aunt or uncle, but Freeman spent only one day in jail. Four days later he was mysteriously murdered. Maya and her brother were returned to her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.
With eight-year-old logic, Maya felt Freeman’s murder was her fault, because she spoke of the sexual abuse to her brother. The thought was so extreme that she didn’t speak for the next nearly five years. She said, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone… ”
One can imagine that during these years of silence, formative years for the girl, she spent a lot of time reading, developing a knack for literature and keen observation of human nature – the very tools of a writer.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a teacher and friend of the family, is credited with helping Maya get her voice back, as well as introducing her to many of the great books of the time.
Among the authors she read are: Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson.
At the age of 14, she was moved again, this time to Oakland, California, where she attended the California Labor School. The school was founded in 1942 and was supported by 72 trade unions and two labor organizations. It was set up to “analyze social, economic and political questions in light of the present world struggle against fascism.” It had many classes in the performing arts. There were approximately 220 full-time, and 1,800 part-time students. Maya studied dance and drama. A few year after Maya attended, the school was listed as a subversive organization by the US Attorney General which drastically reduced attendance. After a couple of wobbly years, the school closed in the1950s.
While attending the California Labor School, Maya took a job as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Weird by today’s standards, but imagine: This was the mid 1940s, she was black, female, and under 16 years old! In fact she was the first ever black, female street conductor in San Francisco. One reason that she was able to get such an unusual job is that World War II was raging, taking many men out of the workplace.
She probably operated a cable car. These are still running today, just as they were back in the 1940s. They were propelled by miles-long loops of cable that move just under the surface of the streets. The cable car has a long hand-operated lever that closes a clamp which grasps the cable to move forward or applies the brakes. It would take a fair amount of strength to operate this lever. No steering is necessary. The cable car follows tracks.
Maya was quite pregnant upon completing school at age 17. Three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to Clyde, who later change his name to Guy Johnson.
For eight months, she worked as a prostitute, then as a madam in a brothel in San Diego. For those who don’t know, a ‘madam’ procures clients for prostitutes, the male version being ‘pimp.’ The madam may optionally provide a workplace and protection for the prostitutes.
Things started to look up for her around 1951. She married Tosh Angelos. He was Greek, and had worked as a sailor and electrician, but hoped to be a professional musician. Being white, it was problematic in 1950s society. Even her mother didn’t approve of the marriage.
Unfortunately that marriage only lasted approximately 3 years. So, unmarried with a young child in 1954, she supported herself by singing and dancing at venues around San Francisco. At the Purple Onion, she sang and danced to calypso music. The people at the Purple Onion suggested she change her stage name from “Marguerite Johnson” or “Rita” to “Maya Angelou.”
At the time, she was also studying dance under Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford.
Maya became so interested in dance that she moved her new little family to New York City so she could study African dance under Pearl Primus. A year later, they moved back to San Francisco.
She also held a few odd positions in her earlier years, including Creole fry cook, auto body paint remover, nightclub dancer and performer, and in 1954 and 1955 she toured Europe in the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
In Porgy and Bess, she played the small role of Carla.
Porgy and Bess is a play based on African-American life in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1920s.
The music for Porgy and Bess was written by George Gershwin, with libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin.
She made it a point to learn as much as she could of the language in every country she visited. In time, she was reasonably proficient in several languages.
Calypso was becoming quite popular in the 1950s, so Maya recorded her first album Miss Calypso. She also appeared in an off-Broadway play called Calypso Heat Wave in which she performed her own compositions.
In 1959, she met James O. Killens, a novelist, who convinced her to start a writing career. For that, she felt it was best to move to New York City, where she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. There, she met significant African-American writers including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield.
Around 1960, she spent some time as the coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which is a national organization for African-American civil rights, founded in 1957, with Dr. Martin Luther King as its first president.
In 1961 she performed in the play The Blacks, which featured Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Le Brown, James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Louis Gossett, and Cicely Tyson. She met Vusumzi Make, a South American freedom fighter, and have a brief relationship with him.
In 1962, Maya, Vusumzi, and her son Guy moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she took a job as editor of African Affairs for the only English-language newspaper in the region at the time, The Arab Observer.
Later in 1962, Maya and Guy, without Vusumzi, moved to Accra, Ghana. In what was to become typical Maya Angelou multitasking, during her three years in Ghana, she became an active member of the African-American ex-pat community, she was an administrator at the University of Ghana, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times and The African Review, was on Radio Ghana, and performed for Ghana’s National Theatre. She also performed with the cast of The Blacks in Geneva, Switzerland, and Berlin, Germany.
It was in Ghana that she met African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist, Malcolm X, who was three years older than Maya.
In 1965, Malcolm was assassinated. That affected Maya devastatingly. She felt cast adrift. She showed up in Hawaii with her brother where she resumed her singing career. After a short while, she found herself back in Los Angeles.
You may notice a familiar pattern of migration. Many of the more footloose Americans start out someplace east of the West Coast of the United States. They move to California, then eventually make it to Hawaii. Most don’t stay long. They get “island fever,” in which they feel trapped, since there are fewer social activities, and since everywhere is vacation-like, there’s nowhere to ‘get away.’ They eventually move back to California, and sometimes even back east to a place not far from where they were born. Maya was more enterprising than most Americans in this way also, having spent time in the Middle East and Europe.
In Watts, a notorious neighborhood of Los Angeles, Maya was working as a market researcher when the famous Watts Race Riots took place. Tension had been building in this predominately black community because the police were not treating residents well. A young man was arrested just outside of Watts on a drunken-driving charge. The arrest did not go well. As the officer was trying to subdue the intoxicated driver, the passenger, who was also the driver’s brother, walked to a nearby house, and brought their mother to the scene. Backup officers arrived. Things became all yelly, at which point, someone stumbled and the scene turned into a shoving, hitting and kicking match, until one officer pulled out a shotgun. No one was shot, but a considerable crowd had formed, and rumors of police brutality spread quickly through the mob. That touched off a series of riots that became so huge it was the center of international media attention. In the end, six days later, the U.S. National Guard supplied 3,900 troops, to aid the 1,652 Los Angeles police officers, over 31,000 people were involved over the course of six days, and 34 ended up dead, with 1,032 injured.
Maya was witness to the Watts race riots.
In 1967, she came back to New York where she focused on writing, with financial support from her friend Jerry Purcell.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. It was Maya’s birthday. She was 40 years old that day.
In 1968, with no experience in producing documentaries, she created an award-winning ten-episode series of documentaries about blues music and black Americans’ African heritage for National Educational Television, which later became PBS.
1968 was also the year that she started writing “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The first of her autobiographies, covering her life up to age 17, it was published in 1969. She was 41 years old when the book launched her into worldwide fame.
Maya Angelou wrote the screenplay Georgia, Georgia, the first ever written by a black woman, and she also wrote the soundtrack. The English-language play was filmed in Sweden, starring Dirk Benedict, and released in 1972.
In 1973, she married Paul du Feu, who was a carpenter of Welsh descent. His former wife was Germaine Greer, famous as an academic journalist specializing in feminism. Rumor has it that Paul’s first marriage ended after only 3-1/2 weeks due to his having an alcoholism problem at the time. His marriage to Maya Angelou was more stable, lasting seven or eight years but ending in divorce in 1981.
As if she hadn’t accomplished much already, between 1973 and 1983 she was especially prolific, as a composer for Roberta Flack, composer of movie scores, and writer of magazine articles, short stories, TV scripts, documentaries, more autobiographies, poetry, and she produced plays. She was also a visiting professor at colleges and universities.
Maya first met Oprah Winfrey when Oprah was a local TV news anchor in Baltimore, Maryland. Oprah and Maya became close friends, with Maya often acting as Oprah’s mentor, being 26 years older. Not only could she advise from the vantage point of age, she was also much more world-traveled and worldly-wise than Oprah in many ways.
Maya Angelou published seven ‘autobiographies.’ Some scholars refer to these seven books as “autofiction” or “autobiographical fiction,” meaning she based the books on actual facts from her past, but also incorporated fiction into the text. This is often done to teach through metaphor, or to make the narrative more interesting and memorable. In Maya’s case, she expanded on the typical definition of ‘autobiography,’ by adding material that wouldn’t be ordinarily considered autobiographical, much as Mark Twain expanded “Life on the Mississippi,” to include riverboat stories beyond his personal experience.
Even though Maya Angelou never graduated from college, starting in 1982, she was a professor at Wake Forest University. She held the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She preferred to be referred to as “Dr. Angelou.”
Wake Forest University is a private, non-profit, non-sectarian coeducational college with its main campus located near downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Wake Forest University currently has an academic staff of 690, and a student population of 7,432.
The last course she taught at Wake Forest was in 2011, when she was 83 years old. Her last speaking engagement at the university was in 2013.
She liked to describe herself as “a teacher who writes.”
Starting in the 1990s, she gave approximately 80 lectures a year, which she continued to do into her eighties, according to a Wikipedia article. She had a customized tour bus that she used to get to her speaking engagements.
On January 20, 1993, dressed in a warm coat, she recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inaugural celebration, the first time a poet recited at an inauguration since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, a gap of 32 years.
Again, according to a Wikipedia article, “The poem’s themes are change, inclusion, responsibility and the role of both the President and the citizenry in establishing economic security.”
She made an audio recording of “On the Pulse of Morning” which won a 1994 Grammy Award.
Maya Angelou was a Democrat. In 2008, she gave her support to New York Senator Hilary Clinton. When Hilary lost in the primaries to Barack Obama, Maya transferred her support to the Obama campaign.
She owned two homes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one in Harlem, New York.
On top of everything else, she was also a renowned cook. She hosted many celebrations in her main Winston-Salem home, and in 2004, she wrote a cookbook called, “Hallelujah! The Welcome Table.”
Her second cookbook, “Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart,” was published in 2010, and focused on weight loss and portion control.
Like many writers, she had a ritual. She would check into a hotel room in which the walls had been cleared of pictures in order to avoid distractions. She’d arrive with nothing but a bunch of legal pads (long, yellow, lined sheets of paper), a Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus, a bottle of sherry, and a deck of cards. She would then play solitaire for an hour or however long it took to get herself into a writing trance or mood. She would write longhand while laying on the bed. At the end of the day, she’d have ten to twelve pages of new material.
Her mother, Vivian Baxter, died in 1991.
Her brother, Bailey Johnson, Jr. died in 2000.
She died on the morning of May 28, 2014 at the age of 86. Maya’s body was found by a nurse. Even though she had been suffering constant pain due to her dancing career, and respiratory failure, she was clear of mind until the last. She was working on an eighth autobiography, about her meetings with world leaders including Barack Obama.
One of Barack’s sisters is named after Maya Angelou: Maya Soetoro-Ng.
Her career as a writer was longer than fifty years.
She received more than thirty honorary degrees.