Born Marguerite Johnson, Maya Angelou spent her formative years shuttling between St. Louis, Missouri, a tiny, totally segregated town in Arkansas, and San Francisco where she realized her ambition of becoming that city's first black streetcar conductor.
During the 1950s, she studied dancing with Pearl Primus in New York, later appearing as a nightclub singer in New York and San Francisco. She worked as an editor for The Arab Observer, an English-language weekly published in Cairo; lived in Accra, Ghana, where under the black nationalist regime of Kwame Nkrumah she taught music and drama; and studied cinematography in Sweden. She became a national celebrity in 1970 with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of her autobiography, which detailed her encounters with southern racism and a rape by her mother's lover.
In 1971 she produced Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie: The Poetry of Maya Angelou; in 1975, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well; in 1979, And Still I Rise; and in 1983, Shaker Why Don't You Sing? In 1977, she was nominated for an Emmy Award for her portrayal of Nyo Boto in the television adaptation of the best-selling novel Roots.
Three more volumes of her autobiography have been published: Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), and The Heart of a Woman (1981). In 1986, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes was published. Angelou's other works include Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship, and Now Sheba Sings the Song.
On January 20, 1993, Angelou read her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," during the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Because of her moving literary works and devotion to the power of expression, Maya Angelou was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1993 and the first Medal of Dist inction from the University of Hawaii Board of Regents in 1994.
Angelou, with her booming laughter and deep rhythmic voice, has always been a symbol of strength and leadership for the plight of women and the underprivileged. She was named keynote speaker for the Chicago Foundation for Women in 1994. In September 1996, Angelou and Camille Cosby joined to help African American women chart new directions in their lives with a $30 million dollar fund raising campaign for the National Council of Negro Women.
In 1995, Angelou starred in the film How to Make an American Quilt with Winona Ryder and Ellen Burstyn. She also delivered her poem "A Brave and Startling Truth" at the United Nations 50th birthday bash in San Francisco. Angelou contributed short stories to the HBO program America's Dream, which aired during Black History Month in 1996 and collaborated with musicians Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson on their 1996 release Been Found. She also wrote the lyrics to the musical King, which premiered in Washington DC on January 19, 1997 as part of the inaugural festivities for President Bill Clinton. In 1998, she directed a motion picture entitled Down in the Delta. The film focused on a woman from Chicago who traveled to Mississippi to locate her African-American roots.
Angelou continued to publish new works and to remain in the public eye in the early 2000s. In 2004, she published Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories and Recipes, a cookbook which included many autobiographical anecdotes related to food in her life. Bookseller called it "a joy to read." A year later, Angelou composed an anti-war poem, "Amazing Peace," for the White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Like "On the Pulse of Morning," "Amazing Peace" was published in book form and became a best-seller. In 2006, Angelou launched a career in a new medium when she began hosting an inspirational show on the "Oprah and Friends" channel for XM Satellite Radio.
Fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Fanti, a language of southern Ghana, Angelou is a popular lecturer and tours throughout the United States.
September 23, 2008: Angelou's book Letter to My Daughter was published by Random House. Source: New York Times, October 17, 2008.
Nominated for National Book Award, 1970, for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Yale University fellowship, 1970; Pulitzer Prize nomination, 1972, for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award nomination from League of New York Theatres and Producers, 1973, for performance in Look Away; Rockefeller Foundation scholar in Italy, 1975; honorary degrees from Smith College, 1975, Mills College, 1975, Lawrence University, 1976, and Wake Forest University, 1977; named Woman of the Year in Communications by Ladies' Home Journal, 1976; Tony Award nomination for best supporting actress, 1977, for Roots; named one of the top one hundred most influential women by Ladies Home Journal, 1983; North Carolina Award in Literature, 1987; named Woman of the Year by Essence magazine, 1992; named Distinguished Woman of North Carolina, 1992; recipient, Horatio Alger Award, 1992; Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word or Non-Traditional Album, 1994, for recording of "On The Pulse of the Morning"; Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, 1994, for Soul Looks Back in Wonder; Quills Award for Poetry, 2006, for Amazing Peace.