Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

"Nothing will work unless you do."

Illustrated by Sarah Hayes

Illustrated by Sarah Hayes

Affectionately nicknamed "Maya" by her older brother, Marguerite Annie Johnson grew up in a heavily segregated Arkansas, raised by her grandmother. Her parents had split when she was three years old, and she was sent with her four year old brother from St Louis, Missouri to Stamps, Arkansas by train, unaccompanied by adults. Angelou's grandmother had done exceedingly well for herself running a general store, so it was considered best that they stay with her.

At the age of seven, however, her father appeared unannounced to take the two siblings back to their mother in St Louis. She had a new boyfriend and it wasn't long before he sexually assaulted young Angelou. She only told her brother about the assault, but he told the rest of the family, and, likely at the hands of her uncles, the boyfriend was murdered. At this point, Angelou stopped talking for five and a half years, fully believing that her word had killed the man.

During this period of silent observation, Angelou and her brother moved back to their grandmother's house in Arkansas. It was during this period that she fully immersed herself in literature, both classic and contemporary, and eventually began to speak again. At 14, she and her brother moved back in with her mother, who had since relocated to Oakland. 

While on the west coast, Angelou earned herself a dance scholarship, but briefly dropped out of school to become the first black woman cable car conductor. She returned to school, and was pregnant at age 16, giving birth to her son just a few weeks after graduating from high school. She waited tables and cooked to support her son. She also danced and was involved in sex work during this time.

She married a greek sailor, Anastasios Angelopulos, taking a shortened version of his last name to become "Maya Angelou." This was her stage name, and though the marriage only lasted a few short years, her career began to take off. She lived in New York studying African dance for a year, toured all over the world in Porgy and Bess, and released an album, Miss Calypso. She organized "Cabaret for Freedom" to benefit the SCLC, became northern coordinator for the organization and met with many prominent Civil Rights activists. She was also a member of the Harlem Writer's guild, meeting many influential black writers.

She lived in Cairo, Egypt and Accra. Ghana for some time, teaching and working as editor at several papers. Her son, Guy, was to attend school in Accra, but was injured in an car accident, so she ended up staying longer than intended while he recovered and began acting again. She became close with Malcolm X while he was visiting Accra and made plans to return to the US to work on a new African-American unity organization with him. He was tragically assassinated shortly after though, and a bereft Angelou moved to Hawaii to stay with her brother, where she began dancing again. Only three years after Malcolm X's death, Martin Luther King Jr, another friend of Angelou's, was assassinated on Angelou's 40th birthday. These events, and encouragement from James Baldwin, inspired her to write her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Which was an immediate and lasting career-defining success. Angelou became the first African-American woman to author a nonfiction best-seller.

Angelou continued to be recognized for her myriad accomplishments. Her film, Georgia, Georgia, released in 1972 was the first film with a black female screenwriter. She also scored the movie, and continued to write music for films and performances. She was a professor, an actor, a journalist. She wrote four more volumes of her autobiography. She befriended and mentored news anchorwoman Oprah Winfrey. Angelou even wrote several cookbooks, She was asked by Bill Clinton to write and recite a poem, "On the Pulse of Morning",  for his 1993 inauguration ceremony which introduced her to any Americans that weren't already familiar with her work.

Angelou's passion later in her career was teaching, and she toured the country giving lectures late into her life.  She was visiting professor and many schools and was granted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

In total, Angelou wrote 7 autobiographies, 36 books, received more than 30 honorary degrees, wrote 7 plays, 11 films, and acted in many more. She welcomed any means of expression and was seen as "The People's Poet" bringing poetry and race conversations into a place where people felt more comfortable in discussion. She was active and sharp until her passing in 2014. Though so heavily influenced by the times, her work remains timeless, appealing to and inspiring a wide range of people across the globe.


"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."-Maya Angelou

"Maya Angelou seemed to have lived many lives in her one, and was prolific and magnificent in her story telling. " -Sarah Hayes


In their over seven decades of work, UNCF has raised more than $4.5 billion and helped more than 430,000 students not just attend college, but thrive, graduate and become leaders.

UNCF is the nation's leading advocate for the importance of minority education and community engagement.

Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray

Mildred (& Richard) Loving

Mildred (& Richard) Loving