1. 1928 – A Childhood Too Rough For Words
She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Mo. A hard childhood there and in Stamps, Ark. included the divorce of her parents, and her own rape at age 7, after which she did not speak for several years. But her spirit wasn’t broken, and by age 16 in San Francisco, she had already broken a barrier by becoming the city’s first black streetcar conductor.
2. 1945 – Motherhood, And A Dream
At 17, Johnson gave birth to her son Clyde “Guy” Johnson. The unwed teen mother moved to San Diego, and made ends meet with stints as a nightclub waitress, strip club dancer, prostitute, and even a madam. In 1951 she married Enistasious Angelos, son of Greek immigrants. The marriage didn’t last long, but during it her love of dancing ignited, and she landed a gig at San Francisco’s Purple Onion. (Pictured ca. 1950.)
3. 1950s – A Career in Show Business
A theater group discovered Marguerite Angelos (who renamed herself Maya Angelou), and in 1952 she joined the international tour of “Porgy and Bess.” A career as a calypsonian followed, and in 1957, Angelou she released her first album, “Miss Calypso.” Not content writing song lyrics, however, she moved to New York City to join the Harlem Writers Guild and immerse herself in the civil rights movement.
4. 1960s – Empowered by Words and Pride
In New York, Angelou acted off Broadway, in “The Blacks,” with Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett, Jr. She also created, with Godfrey Cambridge, the revue “Cabaret for Freedom,” to raise funds for the SCLC. In 1961 she followed South African civil-rights activist Vusumzi Make to Egypt, with Guy in tow. Later she moved to Ghana, with Pan-Africanism in full swing. (Pictured with James Baldwin)
5. 1969 – An Autobiography Changes Everything
By the late 1960s Angelou had returned to the States. With Baldwin’s encouragement, she penned first of her well-loved autobiographies, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Covering her early years, it was a New York Times bestseller for over 2 years, and inspired generations of young people to keep striving, no matter what the odds may be against them.
6. 1974 – Autobiographies Keep Coming
Angelou continued to tell her life’s story as it was unfolding, in an series spanning decades: In addition to “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” she wrote “Gather Together in My Name” (1974), “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1976), “The Heart of a Woman” (1981), “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986), “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002), and “Mom and Me and Mom” (2013).
7. 1977- “Roots” Brings An Emmy Nod
Angelou won an Emmy Award nomination for her acting in the television miniseries, “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s memoir of tracing his family’s story back to Africa. Here, Angelou is pictured in the role of Nyo Boto, with actress Cicely Tyson. In 1979 Angelou co-wrote the TV screenplay for “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Many TV and film projects followed.
8. 1978 – Iconic Poems Released
“You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise….” These are perhaps the most well-known lines to come from Angelou, from her third volume of poetry, “And Still I Rise” (Random House) This poem, by the same name; and “Phenomenal Woman” (“It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips,”) became, perhaps, her best-loved poems.
9. 1993 – Clinton’s Inauguration
By the time Angelou was invited to read a poem at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, she had received Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominations, as well as a Langston Hughes award. After reading “On the Pulse of Morning” on January 20, 1993, she also received a Grammy award for the recording (she would eventually receive 2 more).
10. 1998 – A Directing First
Angelou is considered by many to have been the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture, with “Down in the Delta.” The story of redemption and healing, set in a southern town, was written by Myron Goble. (Shown: Wesley Snipes and Alfre Woodard)
11. 2011 – Receives Presidential Medal
When Angelou received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given, President Barack Obama bent down and kissed her during the White House ceremony. Just before that, he quoted the renowned wordsmith, to herself: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
12. 2014 – Called Home
In her final years, Angelou was a professor of American studies at Wake-Forest University, and a revered national treasure. She died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86 years old, and was survived by her son Guy. “We know that she is looking down upon us with love,” he said, in a statement.