She was the first black female street car conductor in San Francisco and the first black woman to direct a full-length Hollywood film.
She wasn’t able to speak for five years, wrote her first poem at nine, and had a baby at seventeen.
She made a living as a singer, a dancer, a cook, and a prostitute. She won three Grammy Awards and was nominated for a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize.
She wrote for television, radio, film, and the page. She never earned a university degree, but she had fifty honorary ones, and was a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University from 1982 until her death.
She was born in St Louis, lived in Cairo and Accra, and spent her last years in the Deep South of the United States. Among her friends she could include James Baldwin, Billy Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcom X.
She was a champion for blacks and women, and worked tirelessly her entire life against oppression in all its ugly forms. She was born Marguerite Johnson, and she was the phenomenal woman, Maya Angelou.
She first became famous for her writing with her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, about her life growing up as a black girl in the southern United States.
It inspired many black feminist writers in the 1970s. She never intended to write an autobiography, she saw herself as a poet and a scriptwriter.
At first when she was approached by who was to be her life long editor, Robert Loomis, to write the story of her life she refused. When he approached her again, she refused again- but he had a plan.
He accepted her refusal and told her he never thought she’d manage such a big project anyway. Once presented as a challenge she could not possibly be a success at- she insisted she would do it.
In the end, she wrote seven editions of her autobiography, the last instalment was published in 2013, Mom and Me and Mom.
Her style of including dialogue and themes, creating composite characters, and using other narrative techniques was groundbreaking at the time, the beginning of the genre of creative nonfiction, or fictional autobiography as some call her books.
She wrote a poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 titled, On the Pulse of Morning, (the recording of it went on to win her one of her Grammy Awards) about the diverse people that make up the United States and the hope that a new, more inclusive American Dream could be fashioned. It ends:
“…Here on the pulse of this new day you may have the grace to look-up and out and into your sister’s eyes and into your brother’s face, your country, and say simply, very simply, with hope- good morning.”
Afterwards, she said, “In all my work, what I try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike. It may be that Mr. Clinton asked me to write the inaugural poem because he understood that I am the kind of person who really does bring people together.”
She had an interesting writing method. Wherever she lived, she rented a hotel room that waited solely for her. The staff was told to remove all pictures from the walls and not to make the bed, only to empty the dustbins.
Each morning she’d arrive at the room at six with her legal pads, Roget’s Thesaurus, a bottle of sherry, and a Bible. She’d write, lying on the made bed, until noon or so, and usually get about 10-12 pages down.
She’d go home and spend the rest of the day doing other things, especially cooking which she loved and was very good at, in fact, she wrote two cookbooks.
At about five in the evening, after a nice dinner, when the plates were cleared, she’d take out the legal pads and edit her work from the morning, usually cutting those 10-12 pages down to about five.
Asked in an interview in The Paris Review when she knew a piece of writing was finished, she said, “I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better.
But I know when it’s the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.” And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that.”
There are few writers I know, especially women writers, especially black women writers, who have not been inspired by Maya Angelou, the outpouring after the news of her death is evidence of that. She has left a legacy that echoes on through many of us, and she will not be forgotten.