Maya Angelou, the American poet and memoirist, died on May 28, 2014 at the age of eighty-six. Her first book — the first of of seven volumes of autobiography — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969 and told the story of her life up to the age of seventeen. It was an immediate sensation and has become a classic of American literature.
She was born as Marguerite Johnson, and was called Maya in the family. As a child she was raised by various relatives after her parents’ marriage ended when she was three years old. She wound up living with her mother and her second husband who sexually abused and raped her when she was eight years old. After Angelou told family members about her step-father’s abuse he was murdered, presumably by her family.
In her teens and early adulthood Angelou spent time as a sex worker. She had a son at the age of seventeen. Five years later she married a Greek electrician named Tosh Angelos. The marriage didn’t last but she kept a variation of Angelos’s name when she began performing in San Francisco as a calypso singer and dancer.
As an actor she and her son lived in Egypt and Ghana where she also wrote for local newspapers. Returning to America and her singing and dancing career she was approached to write an autobiography, which became I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou went on to excel at different careers — acclaimed poet, Tony Award winning actor, writer of movie musical scores, essayist and memoirist, and political activist.
In 1993 she read one of her poems, On the Pulse of Morning, at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, providing the most moving moment of the occasion.