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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Marguerite Annie Johnson, nicknamed Maya, was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri.  Twenty-four years later she would marry a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopulos and would ever after use a shortened version of his last name as her own.  

When Maya was very young, she moved to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her paternal grandmother after her parents divorced.  She was only seven years old when she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend who was then killed by her uncles in retribution.  She was so traumatized by these events that she didn’t speak for about five years.  But when Maya was 12, she was encouraged to speak again by a woman who some have described as an aristocratic African American woman.  Mrs. Bertha Flowers impressed on young Maya the importance of education and the spoken word.  She also instilled in her a love of poetry.  "She handed my my first life-line," Maya recalled in her first memoir.

In 1944, 16-year-old Maya moved to San Francisco where she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School.  Soon after, she became the first African American female cable car conductor.  This was an amazing fete at the time undertaken by Maya, at least in part, because she admired the uniform.  But that was only the beginning - she would go on to be an author, editor, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, poet, dancer, singer and award-winning actress.  She was also a civil rights activist who worked alongside Malcolm X in 1964, and was a close friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  And books – she wrote 36 of them.  Plus two cookbooks!

Maya Angelou’s 1969 memoir is perhaps what she is best known for.  “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was the first nonfiction bestseller written by an African American woman.  This autobiographical work about her childhood and early adult years won her worldwide acclaim.  Her masterpiece would be followed by five more autobiographies, all chronicling different periods of her life. 

The truth is that I could fill an entire blog with the achievements and awards earned by Maya Angelou and the accolades she received during her time here on earth. Here's a timeline of many of them.

1st Black female cable car conductor

Landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess

Starred in off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave

Released her first album, Miss Calypso

Organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom
as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Appeared in off-Broadway production of The Blacks with
James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. & Cicely Tyson

Helped Malcom X set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity

1st nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman for
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Nominated for Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection - 
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die

1st African American woman to have her screenplay,
Georgia, Georgia, produced

Nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the play Look Away

Served on presidential committee for Gerald Ford

Served on presidential committee for Jimmy Carter

Nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on the television miniseries Roots

Awarded the Langston Hughes Medal

Awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award

Read her poem, On the Pulse of Morning
at Bill Clinton’s inaugural ceremony

Won a Grammy Award (best spoken word album)
for On the Pulse of Morning

Won the Spingarn Medal

Held record (2 years) for the longest-running paperback bestseller
on The New York Times’ list

Won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word or Non Musical Album
for Phenomenal Woman

Made her directorial debut with Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard

Won the Audience Choice Award at the Chicago International Film Festival

Nominated for Down in the Delta at the Acapulco Black Film Festival

Awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton

Won an NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary work (nonfiction) -
Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes

Won the Mother Teresa Award

Won the Quill Award for Poetry (Amazing Peace:  A Christmas Poem)

Won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work -
Poetry Celebrations, Rituals of Peace and Prayer

Won the Marian Anderson Award

Won an NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary work (nonfiction) – 
Letter to My Daughter

Won the Glamour Award for the Poet

Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama

Won the BET Honors Award for Literary Arts

She was also awarded over 50 honorary degrees before her death

Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Luckily for us, she left a treasure trove of her work to help us light the way.



Sources:, Maya Angelou – Quotes, Poems & Books, Editors, February 28, 2018 & updated May 10, 2021
SFist, How Maya Angelou Became San Francisco’s First African-American Female Streetcar Conductor, Jay Barmann, May 24, 2014
Poetry Foundation, Maya Angelou, Poetry Foundation Editors, date unknown

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