An accomplished poet, an award-winning writer, a journalist, an activist, a performer, a dancer, an actress, a director, and a teacher, Maya Angelou is also a three-time Grammy Award winner for her autobiographical spoken-word recordings.
Born in 1928, Angelou spent her formative years being shuffled between her mother and grandmother in Arkansas. Growing up in Stamps, AK, Angelou learned what it was like to be a black girl in a world whose boundaries were set by whites. 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.
Perhaps the most traumatic experience of her childhood occurred when Maya returned to live with her mother at age eight and was raped by her mother's boyfriend. The devastating act of violence caused her to become mute for nearly six years.
The years of dysfunction affected Angelou so deeply that grew determined to become independent and prove herself a woman. She began dancing for a living and soon found herself pregnant. At sixteen she delivered her only son, Guy.
After traveling across Europe and Africa for several years, she returned to New York City in the 1960s. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and became involved in black activism, then spent the next few years in Ghana as editor of African Review. It was there that she began to take her life, her activism and her writing more seriously.
Maya Angelou's five-volume autobiography commenced with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970. The memoirs chronicle different eras of her life and were met with critical and popular success. Later books include All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) and My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994). She has published several volumes of verse, including And Still I Rise (1987) and Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1995). Her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die (1971), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
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 world; she is a recipient of 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 position as Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She was the first black woman director in Hollywood, having written, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television. She has written and produced several prize-winning documentaries, including "Afro-Americans in the Arts," a PBS special for which she received the Golden Eagle Award.
As a speaker, Maya Angelou is highly sought after on the lecture circuit. In 1993, Angelou read On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton's Presidential inauguration, a poem written at his request. It was only the second time a poet had been asked to read at an inauguration, the first being Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.