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Maya Angelou
b. 1928



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Biography / Criticism

Born April 4, 1928 in Saint Louis, Missouri, Maya Angelou's given name was Marguerite Johnson. In her early twenties she was given the name Maya Angelou after her debut performance as a dancer at the Purple Onion cabaret. The author's father, Bailey Johnson, was a naval dietician, and her mother was Vivian Johnson. She has one sibling, a brother named Bailey after their father. When she was about three years old, their parents divorced and the children were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou claims that her grandmother, whom she called "momma, had a deep-brooding love that hung over everything she touched." Growing up in Stamps, Angelou learned what it was like to be a black girl in a world whose boundaries were set by whites. She learned what it meant to have to wear old hand me downs from a white woman. And she also learned the humiliation of being refused treatment by a white dentist. As a child she always dreamed of waking to find her "nappy black hair" metamorphosed to a long blond bob because she felt life was better for a white girl than for a black girl. Despite the odds, her grandmother instilled pride in Angelou with religion as an important element in their home.

After five years of being apart from their mother the children were sent back to Saint Louis to be with her. This move eventually took a turn for the worst when Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend. The devastating act of violence committed against her caused her to become mute for nearly five years. She was sent back to Stamps because no one could handle the grim state Angelou was in. With the constant help of a woman named Mrs. Flowers, Angelou began to evolve into the young girl who had possessed the pride and confidence she once had. Again in 1940, her brother and her were sent to San Francisco to live with their mother. Life with her mother was constant disorder. Living with her mother soon became too much for her so she ran away to be with her father and his girlfriend in their rundown trailer. Finding that life with him was no better, she ended up living in a graveyard of wrecked cars that mainly housed homeless children. It took her a month to get back home to her mother. Angelou's dysfunctional childhood spent moving back and forth between her mother and grandmother caused her to struggle with maturity. She became determined to prove she was a woman and began to rush toward maturity. Angelou soon found herself pregnant, and at the age of sixteen she delivered her son, Guy.

Angelou's first work of literature, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is an autobiography. Angelou's sometimes disruptive life inspired her to write this book. It truly reflects the essence of her struggle to overcome the restrictions that were placed upon her in a hostile environment. Angelou writes with a twist of lyrical imagery along with a touch of realism. The title of this book is taken from the poem "sympathy" by the great black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Sidonie Ann Smith praised Angelou for the book, saying that, "like Richard Wright, she opens with a primal childhood scene that brings into focus the nature of the imprisoning environment from which the self will seek escape" (Smith 10). The work displays an impulse towards transcendence.

Her second book, Gather Together in My Name, centers on Angelou and her brother's move away from their grandmother. This transition takes place from her later teen years through her mid twenties, focusing on her experiences as a mother, a Creole cook, a madam, a tap dancer, a prostitute and a chauffeurette. Also in the novel, Angelou writes about an affair with a customer at a restaurant and her brief experience with drugs. Annie Gottlieb states that Angelou "writes like a song, and like the truth" (Gottlieb 23). Another reader, Doris Grumbach, states, "it is apparent that Angelou is keen, sharp, earthy, imaginative, lyrical, spiritually bold, and seems destined for distinction" (Grumbach 12). But according to Frank L. Phillips, "Maya Angelou is not the stylist that Himes is, nor a Richard Wright" (Phillips 12). Angelou concludes this book with an appeal to her audience for forgiveness for the accounts of her wretched past.

Angelou's third novel, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, covers about five years of her life from the ages of twenty-two to twenty-seven. During this period she was married to Tosh Angelos, a white man and an ex-sailor, who she shows to be intelligent, kind, and reliable. He was a temporary source of stability for herself and her son, but after five years of marriage she found that she wasn't suited for it. She divorced him and returned to her career as a dancer. Shortly afterwards she joined the European touring production of Porgy and Bess. She devotes over half the book to describing the tour. She talks about how the guilt over her neglect of her son nearly drove her to suicide, but her love of life, motherhood, and dancing sent her running home. June Jordon states that this novel "frequently borders on a light and fantastical style of comic opera.....that is sometimes delightful reading, and sometimes not" (Jordan 13). In Alleen P. Nilsen's opinion "this book might make an exciting introduction to Angelou's poetry" (Nilsen 14).

The title of her fourth novel, The Heart of a Woman, comes from a poem that was written during the Harlem Renaissance by the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. Once again, in this book, Angelou is in search of her identity and place. The book is told from a perspective that matches that of her first novel and has a similar psychological depth. Narrating her thirties, Angelou reflects on her son Guy, the civil rights movement, marriage, and her own writing. During this period, she became more committed to her writing and was inspired by her friend, John Killens, a distinguished social activist author. Also, during that time she made a commitment to promote black civil rights and examine the nature of racial oppression, racial progress and racial integration. Adam David Miller states that this is a book that "covers one of the most exciting periods in recent African and Afro-American history" (Miller 23).

Angelou's fifth autobiography, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, shows her to have developed an even greater sense of connection with her African past. She dedicates this book to Julian Mayfield and Malcolm X, who both were passionately and earnestly in search of their symbolic home. After her visit to Ghana, she was swept into adoration for the country and adopted it as her homeland. She states "our people had always longed for home....In the yearning, heaven and Africa were inextricably combined....So I had finally come home" (19). Barbara T. Christian describes the book as "a thoughtful yet spirited account of one Afro-American woman's journey into the land of her ancestors." She goes on to say that it is "an important document drawing more much needed attention to the hidden history of a people both African and American." Also, according to Christian, Angelou's sojourn in Africa strengthens her bond to her ancestral home even as she concretely experiences her distinctiveness as an Afro-American" (Christian 23).

Maya Angelou speaks numerous languages fluently and has traveled abroad to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. She has worked as a journalist for foreign publications and has been honored by the academic worldshe received the Yale University Fellowship and was named a Rockefeller Foundation Scholar in Italy. She has taught at the University of Ghana and the University of Kansas and holds a lifetime chair as Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Among her many accomplishments are the Woman of the Year Award in Communications of the Ladies' Home Journal and nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards. Maya Angelou is a wonderful speaker and is highly sought after on the lecture circuit.

The life and work of Maya Angelou are fully intertwined. Angelou's poetry and personal narratives form a larger picture wherein the symbolic Maya Angelou rises to become a point of consciousness for African-American people, especially black women seeking to survive masculine prejudice, in addition to whites hatred of blacks and blacks lack of power. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has generated a wealth of critical literature as well as solid recognition for Maya Angelou. Many liked The Heart of a Woman; it has also received critical acclaim. All of Maya Angelou's autobiographical novels are widely read and taught in schools and universities and continue to inspire lively critical responses. Angelou's poetry and screenplays are less well known, and for the most part critics have not been generous toward them. Some have referred to her poetry as "too simple" and suggested that it is unworthy of inclusion in the canon of American poetry. But Angelou's audience isnt affected by what those critics have to say about her work. Angelou's response to those critics may be, "If that canon, that body of literature written largely by white men, acknowledges my work, then well and good. I accept this honor" (7).


Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author

  • Books
    • A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
    • All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
    • The Heart of a Woman (1981)
    • Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976)
    • Gather Together in My Name (1974)
    • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1970)
  • POETRY
    • The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994)
    • Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (1983)
    • And Still I Rise (1978)
    • Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975)
    • Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Die (1971)
  • PLAYS
    • And Still I Rise (1976)
    • Ajax (1974)
    • The Least of These (1966)
    • Cabaret For Freedom (1960)
  • ESSAYS
    • Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1998)
    • Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)

Works about the Author

  • Burr, Zofia. Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorde, and Angelou. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Lupton, Mary Jane. "Spinning in a Whirlwind": Sexuality in Maya Angelou's Sixth Autobiography." MAWA Review 18.1-2 (2003): 1-6.
  • ------------. Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
  • Jaquin, Eileen O. "Maya Angelou (1928-)." African American Autobiographers: A Source Book. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
  • Tinnie, Wallis. "Maya Angelou." The History of Southern Women's Literature. Ed. Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 2002.
  • Saunders, James Robert. "Breaking Out of the Cage: The Autobiographical Writings of Maya Angelou." Twayne Companion to Contemporary Literature in English. Ed. R.H.W. Dillard and Amanda Cockrell. New York: Twayne--Thomson Gale, 2002.
  • Hilton, Als. "Songbird: Maya Angelou Takes Another Look at Herself." New Yorker 78.22 (Aug. 5, 2002): 72-76.
  • Koyana, Siphokazi and Rosemary Gray. "Growing Up with Maya Angelou and Sindiwe Magona: A Comparison." English in Africa 29.1 (2002): 85-98. Courtney-Clarke, Margaret. Maya Angelou: The Poetry of Living. Forward by Oprah Winfrey. New York: C. Potter, 1999.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 1998.
  • Tangum, Marion M. and Marjorie Smelstor. "Hurston's and Angelou's Visual Art: The Distancing Vision and the Beckoning Gaze." Southern Literary Journal 33.1 (1998): 80-96.
  • Coulthard, A.R. "Poetry as Politics: Maya Angelou's Inaugural Poem, "On the Pulse of Morning". Notes on Contemporary Literature 28.1 (1998): 2-5. McPherson, Dolly A. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: P. Lang, 1990.
  • Christian, Barbara T. "Angelou." Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Volume 19. 1987.
  • Bloom, Lynn Z. "Maya Angelou 4 April 1928- ." Dictionary of Literary Criticism. Volume 38. Gale Research Company. 1985.
  • Braxton, Joanne M. "Maya Angelou 1928-. Modern American Women Writers. " Charles Scribner's Sons. 1991.
  • Gottlieb, Annie. "Angelou." Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Volume 19. 1987.
  • Grumbach, Doris. "Maya Angelou 4 April 1928-." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale Research Company. Volume 12. 1980.
  • Jordan, June. "Maya Angelou 4 April 1928." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale Research Company. Volume 12. 1980.
  • Miller, Adam David. "Angelou." Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Volume 19. 1987.
  • Nilsen, Alleen P. "Maya Angelou 4 April 1928-." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale Research Company. Volume 12. 1980.
  • Phillips, Frank L. "Maya Angelou 4 April 1928-." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale Research Company. Volume 12. 1980.
  • Smith, Sidonie Ann. "Maya Angelou 4 April 1928-." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale Research Company. Volume 12. 1980.

Works in Languages other than English

  • French
    • Je Sais Pourquoi Chante L'oiseau En Cage. (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) Trans. Christiane Besse. Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1990.
    • Je Reprendrais Bien Un Peu De Rve. (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) Trans. Philippe Bonnet and Dominique Lemann. [s.l.] Hachette, 1980, 1969.
    • La Tete Haute. (And Still I Rise.) Trans. Genevive Brallion-Zeude and Robert Soulat. Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1980.
  • Greek, Modern
    • Ta Dynata Poulia Tes Epangelias. (Gather Together in My Name.) Trans. Kostia Kontoleon. Athena: Ekdoseis Patake, 1995.
    • E Pio Megle Anamnese (Longest Memory), with Fred D'Aguiar. Trans. Mara Aggelidoy. Athena: Psychogis, 1994.
  • Japanese
    • Utae Ttobenai Toritachiyo: Maya Anjero Jiden Ichi (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) Trans. Midori Yajima. Tokyo: Rippu Shobo, 1998. Kyoto: Jinbunshoin, 1979.
    • Watashi No Tabi Ni Nimotsu Wa Mo Iranai. (Would't Take Nothing For My Journey Now.) Trans. Miyagi Yoko. Tokyo: Rippu Shobo, 1996.
    • Machiyo Wagana O Takarakani: Maya Anjero Jiden Ni. (Gather Together in My Name.) Trans. Midori Yajima. Kyoto: Jinbunshoin, 1980.
  • Korean
    • Ak`Anso Nun Kip`Un Saenggak E Chamgyo Itta. (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) Soul-si: Sahoe P`yongnon, 1999.
  • Spanish
    • Encontraos En Mi Nombre. (Gather Together In My Name.) Trans. Nstor Busquets. Barcelona: Lumen, 2000.
    • Yo Se Por Qu Canta El Pajaro Enjaulado. (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) Trans. Carlos Manzano. Barcelona: Editorial Lumen, 1993.
    • Ahora Se Porque Cantan Los Pjaros Enjaulados. (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) Trans. Esther Elena Sanans. Madrid: Ediciones Felmar, 1976.
    • Ahora Se Porque Cantan Los Pajaros Enjaulados. (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) [S.l.] : Felmar, 1969.
  • Swedish
    • Samlas I Mitt Namn. (Gather Together in My Name.) Trans. Roland Adlerberth. Hgans [Sweden]: Bokfrlaget Bra Bcker, 1977.
  • Braille
    • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Trans. Christine Core. Los Angeles, Calif.: Braille Institute of America, 1995; New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

Related Links

Angelou's official website
Includes video clips, biographical information, and recent events and appearances.

African American Literature Book Club's page on Maya Angelou
Includes information on Angelou's biography and her critical reception.

SwissEduc Angelou
A resource site for teachers; includes the text of several of Angelou's poems.

WIC Biography: Maya Angelou
A brief biography of the author. Includes a photo.

This page was researched and submitted by Sharon Burt on 1/26/98 and edited and updated by Lauren Curtright on 8/6/04.


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