Maya Angelou, the US Poet Laureate, was bom Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. She and her brother Bailey left their parents’ home for their grandmother’s house when Maya was only four. She grad¬ uated from the eighth grade in Stamps, Arkansas, and she and her brother moved to San Francisco to be reunited with their mother, who had left Missouri after divorc¬ ing their father.
All of these years are detailed in the first of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). The honest and sensitive stories of a young girl’s stmggle to survive made Angelou one of contemporary America’s most valued writers, yet it was only the first in a lifetime of achievements.
Maya, which is what her brother called her, studied drama and dance at the California Labor School while attend¬ ing George Washington High. At the age of 16, she had an son, and faced all the moral judgements of a racist, sexist society. To describe the difficul¬ ties of being a single parent, Maya wrote Gather Together in My Name (1974).
Intimate and vivid, it too increased her standing as a writer, as did her three other autobiographies, each detailing the development of an exceptional talent. Singin ’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) follows her through her theatrical career, which took her all over the world on tour with Porgy and Bess.
The Heart ofWoman (1981) is about her maturity as an artist, and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes explains her time in Africa, where she edited an Egyptian publica¬ tion and lectured in Ghana.
It follows her back to America and details her involvement in the activist 1960s.Her first screenplay, “Georgia, Georgia” (1972), became the first pro¬duced screenplay written and directed by an African-American woman.
Maya Angelou went on to make history as one of America’s finest poets. Her pub¬ lished collections, including Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die (1971), Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), Still I Rise (1978), Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing (1983), Poems: Maya Angelou (1986), Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987), and / Shall Not Be Moved (1990) all preceded her brilliant reading at the inauguration of Pres¬ ident Bill Clinton in 1992.
Named poet laureate for the nation, Maya Angelou has become more than an artist with endurance, vitality and power. She has become a national symbol for excellence.