Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey and Vivian Baxter Johnson. When she was three years old, her parents divorced, and Angelou and her brother, Bailey, Jr., were sent to live with their grandmother Mrs. Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas. Mrs. Henderson operated a general store, and the children’s lives revolved around the members of the all-black community who gathered at the store to shop and talk. When Angelou was seven, she and Bailey returned to live with their mother in St. Louis, where Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. This traumatic event and the court proceedings that followed caused Angelou to withdraw from everyone except Bailey, and led her mother to return the children to Stamps. After graduating from the eighth grade, Angelou, along with Bailey, rejoined her mother in San Francisco and stayed there for the remainder of her teenage years. She dropped out of school, worked as a conductor on the streetcar system, became pregnant, returned to school, and graduated just before the birth of her son, Guy Johnson.
During her high school years, Angelou read and loved the dramas of Shakespeare, which led her to study acting. After marrying Tosh Angelos in 1950, she studied dance in New York City and performed in a cabaret theater in San Francisco. From 1954 to 1955 she toured twenty-two countries as a cast member in “Porgy and Bess.” During the late 1950s she supported herself by singing in nightclubs and living a “beatnik” life in Sausalito, near San Francisco. In 1958 she moved to New York to study with the Harlem Writers Guild, and by 1960 she was both performing in and writing for the theater. During the early 1960s Angelou worked as a journalist in Egypt and West Africa. Mother and son were reunited at the University of Ghana, where Angelou worked for the School of Music and Drama and Guy enrolled as a student. She returned to Los Angeles in 1966 to lecture at the University of California.
A dinner party in New York City provided the catalyst for Angelou’s writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. One guest suggested to Angelou that she write about her early childhood and adolescent experiences, and the next day another friend called Random House publishers to suggest that Angelou’s story would make a good book. An editor followed through and eventually prevailed on a hesitant Angelou to prepare a manuscript for publication. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, was an immediate commercial and critical success. Hailed as a “contemporary classic,” the book earned a nomination for the National Book Award and was a selection of both the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Ebony Book Club.
Angelou, who speaks six languages, is a poet, playwright, songwriter, journalist, singer, actor, short-story writer, and novelist. Prior to the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote, produced, and acted in two-act dramas and musicals, composed poetry, and recorded songs. In the decades following publication of the book, Angelou has written several books of poetry and autobiographical novels, as well as plays, screenplays, and television specials.