All achievers

Maya Angelou

Poet and Historian

One of the saddest things in the world is to see a cynical young person. Because it means that he and she have gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou in San Francisco, at the time of the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970.

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was only three and she was sent with her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas. In Stamps, the young girl experienced the racial discrimination that was the legally enforced way of life in the American South, but she also absorbed the deep religious faith and old-fashioned courtesy of traditional African American life. She credits her grandmother and her extended family with instilling in her the values that informed her later life and career. She enjoyed a close relationship with her brother. Unable to pronounce her name because of a stutter, Bailey called her “My” for “My sister.” A few years later, when he read a book about the Maya Indians, he began to call her “Maya,” and the name stuck.

At age seven, while visiting her mother in Chicago, she was sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend. Too ashamed to tell any of the adults in her life, she confided in her brother. When she later heard the news that an uncle had killed her attacker, she felt that her words had killed the man. She fell silent and did not speak for five years.

Maya began to speak again at 13, when she and her brother rejoined their mother in San Francisco. Maya attended Mission High School and won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School, where she was exposed to the progressive ideals that animated her later political activism. She dropped out of school in her teens to become San Francisco’s first African American female cable car conductor. She later returned to high school, but became pregnant in her senior year and graduated a few weeks before giving birth to her son, Guy. She left home at 16 and took on the difficult life of a single mother, supporting herself and her son by working as a waitress and cook, but she had not given up on her talents for music, dance, performance and poetry.

Maya Angelou
1970: Maya Angelou walks on the beach in San Francisco. Angelou was exposed in San Francisco to the progressive social ideals that animated her later political activism.

In 1952, she married a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopulos. When she began her career as a nightclub singer, she took the professional name Maya Angelou, combining her childhood nickname with a form of her husband’s name. Although the marriage did not last, her performing career flourished. She toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess in 1954 and 1955. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows, and recorded her first record album, Calypso Lady, in 1957.

She had composed song lyrics and poems for many years, and by the end of the 1950s was increasingly interested in developing her skills as a writer. She moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and took her place among the growing number of young black writers and artists associated with the Civil Rights Movement. She acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed a Cabaret for Freedom with the actor and comedian Godfrey Cambridge.

In New York, she fell in love with the South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make, and in 1960, the couple moved, with Angelou’s son, to Cairo, Egypt. In Cairo, Angelou served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. Angelou and Guy later moved to Ghana, where she joined a thriving group of African American expatriates. She served as an instructor and assistant administrator at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company.

Maya Angelou (Kwaku Alston/Corbis via Getty Images)
Maya Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focused on her childhood and her early adult experiences. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. (© Kwaku Alston/Getty)

During her years abroad, she read and studied voraciously, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. She met with the American dissident leader Malcolm X in his visits to Ghana, and corresponded with him as his views evolved from the racially polarized thinking of his youth to the more inclusive vision of his maturity.

Awards Council member and the Banquet moderator Oprah Winfrey presents the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award to Maya Angelou during 1990 Achievement Summit in Chicago, Illinois.

Maya Angelou returned to America in 1964, with the intention of helping Malcolm X build his new Organization of African American Unity. Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and his plans for a new organization died with him. Angelou involved herself in television production and remained active in the Civil Rights Movement, working more closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who requested that Angelou serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His assassination, falling on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated. With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she found solace in writing, and began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book tells the story of her life from her childhood in Arkansas to the birth of her child. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1970 to widespread critical acclaim and enormous popular success.

Seemingly overnight, Angelou became a national figure. In the following years, books of her verse and the subsequent volumes of her autobiographical narrative won her a huge international audience. She was increasingly in demand as a teacher and lecturer and continued to explore dramatic forms as well. She wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the film Georgia, Georgia (1972). Her screenplay, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Maya Angelou reads her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" at the inauguration of President William J. Clinton, January 20, 1993.
1993: Angelou reads her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.

Angelou was invited by successive Presidents of the United States to serve in various capacities. President Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, and President Carter invited her to serve on the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman. President Clinton requested that she compose a poem to read at his inauguration in 1993. Angelou’s reading of her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” was broadcast live around the world.

Beginning in 1981, Angelou served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She continued to appear on television and in films including Poetic Justice (1993) and the landmark television adaptation of Roots (1977). She directed numerous dramatic and documentary programs on television and directed a feature film, Down in the Delta, in 1996.

Maya Angelou performans at the 1997 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. (© Marc Brasz/CORBIS)
Maya Angelou performs at the 1997 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was an actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. Maya Angelou made nearly a hundred appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. (© Marc Brasz/CORBIS)

The list of her published works includes more than 30 titles. These include numerous volumes of verse, beginning with Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die (1971). Books of her stories and essays include Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now (1993) and Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997). She continued the compelling narrative of her life in the books 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 (1987) and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002).

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to author and poet Maya Angelou in the East Room of the White House, February 15, 2011. (AP Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to author and poet Maya Angelou in the East Room of the White House, February 15, 2011. (AP Images/Monsivais)

In 2000, Angelou was honored with the Presidential Medal of the Arts; she received the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal in 2008. The same year, she narrated the award-winning documentary film The Black Candle and published a book of guidance for young women, Letter to My Daughter. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Maya Angelou participated in a series of live broadcasts for Achievement Television in 1991, 1994 and 1997, taking questions submitted by students from across the United States. The interview with Maya Angelou on this website has been condensed from these broadcasts.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1990

“I was a mute from the time I was seven and a half until I was almost 13. I didn’t speak. I had voice, but I refused to use it.”

As a child, Maya Angelou was traumatized by abuse. For five years, she was silent, but in time, she found her voice, and that voice has been heard around the world. A single mother at age 16, she embarked on a remarkable career as an actress and entertainer, as a journalist, educator and civil rights activist, and finally, as one of the world’s most eminent authors and poets.

Her autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, created an international sensation when it was first published in 1970. Her books and poems made her one of the world’s favorite authors and one of America’s best-loved public speakers. President Clinton requested that she compose a poem for his first inaugural in 1993; she read that poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” to an audience of millions on live television.

A close friend and associate of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King as well as Malcolm X, Maya Angelou shared her hard-won wisdom — and the vivid memories of her remarkable life — through her books, poems, films and through her interviews with the American Academy of Achievement.

Watch full interview

Dr. Angelou, you worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. What was Dr. King really like, personally?

Keys to success — Courage

Maya Angelou: Dr. King was a human being. He had a sense of humor which was wonderful. It is very dangerous to make a person larger than life because, then, young men and women are tempted to believe, well, if he was that great, he’s inaccessible, and I can never try to be that or emulate that or achieve that. The truth is, Martin Luther King was a human being with a brilliant mind, a powerful heart, and insight and courage, and also with a sense of humor. So he was accessible. I mentioned courage, and I would like to say something else about that, finding courage in the leaders and in you who will become leaders. Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtues consistently. You see? You can’t be consistently kind or fair or humane or generous, not without courage, because if you don’t have it, sooner or later you will stop and say, “Eh, the threat is too much. The difficulty is too high. The challenge is too great.” So I would like to say that Dr. King, while we know from all the publicity that he was brilliant, and he was powerful, and he was passionate and right, he was also a funny man, and that’s nice to know.

How old were you when you met Dr. King?

Maya Angelou: I was about 27, I think. I was much younger in my mind than I was in my body. I had a big Afro. It was so large that if the wind caught me wrong, it could have lifted me off the ground. I was pleased to have the chance to work for him.

He was also very young at that time. He was only 34 at the time he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and he was already well into the movement.

Maya Angelou: Oh, yes. He was very young and very personable, so that he was really humble.

Keys to success — Integrity

I don’t think modesty is a very good virtue, if it is a virtue at all. A modest person will drop the modesty in a minute. You see, it’s a learned affectation. But humility comes from inside out. Humility says there was someone before me, someone found the path, someone made the road before me, and I have the responsibility of making the road for someone who is yet to come. Dr. King was really humble so that he was accessible to everybody. The smallest child could come up to him, the most powerful person could come up to him, he never changed. If somebody very rich and very powerful said, “Dr. King, I want to speak to you,” he was the same person to that person as he would be to one of you who is 16, 17, if you would say, “Dr. King…” He was still accessible, gentle, powerful, humble.

Which of these qualities do you think made him the leader he was?

I suppose courage would be the first of his many wondrous and wonderful qualities that I would list. I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair. So I think the first virtue — the first element — of his personality that I would extoll would be courage.

Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King at the "Maya Angelou Life Mosaic" Collection by Hallmark celebration at Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King during the “Maya Angelou Life Mosaic” Hallmark celebration in New York.

Courage is often lonely. Do you sense that he knew how alone he was when the struggle was starting?

Maya Angelou: It’s always lonely, I think. Those who have something to say accept the fact that that’s lonely. One already knows that there will be adversaries. And according to what is at stake, the adversaries will be more violent or less violent. One is sustained though, in the belief that what one has to say is right, and right for the most people. And then, one is sustained by one’s loved ones. Dr. King had, first, his wife and family, and then, the people who loved him, really, really loved him. I think that they and their undying, unswerving love sustained him, even in the loneliest of moments.

What other qualities do you think made him an effective leader?

Maya Angelou: Intelligence, a very profound intelligence. Now, that does not always go hand-in-hand with intellect. With Dr. King, it did. But I point out that intelligence is a separate gift, for the benefit of students, so that they may think of themselves as intellectual and not very intelligent, or intelligent and not very intellectual. One hopes, of course, that they try to bring the two virtues, the two elements, into their lives at the same time.

Keys to success — Preparation

Dr. King was profoundly intelligent. That is to say, he was able to see, to examine, to analyze, to evaluate, to measure the climate of the times, the expediency of his calling, of his ministry. That’s intelligence. Now intellect, of course, helped him to be able to explain what he saw with grace and eloquence and wonderful quotations, whether from Paul Laurence Dunbar or Longfellow. That was out of the virtue of his studies.

Would you say he was also unusually empathetic? He cared deeply how others were treated.

Maya Angelou: Yes. This is true. He cared about women. He cared about the poor. He cared about the Spanish-speaking. He cared about Jews. He cared about poor whites, the miners, and those who were having a very hard time. So that even as he was assassinated, he was planning a March on Washington, called the “Poor People’s March,” in which he had encouraged African Americans, white Americans, Spanish-speaking, Native Americans, Asian Americans, all of us, to join and go to Washington, and sit there in tent cities in the nation’s capital, until something was done for the poor.

I think some of the aspects of Dr. King which are rarely mentioned are necessary for young men and women to know about. Dr. King was not only a man of high moral values and, of course, intelligence and spirituality, but he was also very funny. Very few people really know that he had a wonderful sense of humor and appreciated a good laugh, and I think that’s important for young men and women to know, because the Bible says, “A cheerful spirit is good medicine.” Dr. King, in the face of the most horrid situations, the most cruel people, the most greedy and mean-spirited, he kept his spirit up, and quite often, with a wonderful smile.

How did Dr. King influence your life?

Maya Angelou: It is not a past tense for me. Dr. King continues to have an impact on my life, as he does upon the lives of many people in the world. A dream — an idea — never dies. It might go in or out of fashion, but it remains. So his idea of fair play and justice still impacts upon me. He was a friend of mine, I worked with him. And Ms. Coretta Scott King is a sister-friend of mine today, so we are in sisterly touch. The ideas which he embodied and subsequently gave to the world are ideas I am still trying to flesh out in my own life. I am trying to be that fair person, that kind person, that generous, courageous person, that loving person that Martin Luther King, Jr. was and encouraged us to become.

Maya Angelou enjoys a speaker's joke at the 2000 annual conference of the Children's Defense Fund in New York City. (© Najlah Feanny/CORBIS SABA)
Maya Angelou enjoys a speaker’s joke at the 2000 conference of the Children’s Defense Fund in New York City.

Do you feel that Dr. King can have the same influence on succeeding generations? What do you think is the most important thing young people should learn from him?

Maya Angelou: The effect of a great man or woman is not always visible. The fact that we are having this conversation is evidence that his impact has reached hundreds of millions of people. I pray that out of this kind of discussion and the various celebrations of Dr. King, a young person may decide to make life better, just for a minute and just in the place where you are. Don’t think of having to be grown up and having to have power and money and prestige and a name and all that. Don’t believe that is the only way that you can make a difference. You can start right now, just where you are, being a better person yourself, being kinder, being more courteous, trying to be a better student, so that you will make an impact yourself on your nation, on your race, on your gender, and in fact, on the world. That is where we see the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr.

What does Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream symbolize to you?

Keys to success — The American Dream

Maya Angelou: The dream of Martin Luther King, for me, represents the best the human being can hope for — a world of peace, of development, a world of respect, a world where all men and women are valued, none higher than the other, none lower than the other because of his or her color or his or her race or his or her religion or cultural persuasion. That is the best we can hope for. And so when we speak of the dream, I think if Martin Luther King said he had a dream, I think this is the dream of America. This is us at our best.

Do you find yourself mouthing the words when you hear the “I Have a Dream” speech after all these years?

Maya Angelou: Yes, of course. I have been so pleased to see young black men and young black women, and young white men and women, and Spanish-speaking, sometimes 12 years old and nine years old, reciting “I Have a Dream” with the passion and fervor of youth. It tells me so clearly that the speech, as much as the man, belongs to us all.

Dr. King’s speaking style — the “I Have a Dream” speech in particular — do you think it had an influence on your own writing, your poetry?

Keys to success — Passion

Maya Angelou: The music of the “I Have a Dream” speech is a replication of the music which comes out of the mouths of the African American preacher. Preacher, singer, blues singer, jazz singer, rap person, it is so catching, so hypnotic, so wonderful that, as a poet, I continue to try to catch it, to catch the music. If I can catch the music and have the content as well, then I have the ear of the public. And I know that’s what Martin Luther King was able to do, not just in the “I Have a Dream” speech — although that has become a kind of poem which is used around the world — but in everything he said there was the black Southern Baptist or Methodist preacher, singing his song, telling our story — not just black American story either, but telling the human story. And as a poet, if I can replicate that, I am okay, Jack.

View and listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.