Maya Angelou

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Maya Angelou.

By Simran Bedi.

Maya Angelou is revered today for her work as a poet, writer, actress, dancer, and activist. She was a woman of many talents and her wisdom lives on through her many works of art, most notably, her autobiographies. Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, MO and had a traumatic childhood.[1] Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which she published in the late 1960s at the encouragement of James Baldwin, focuses on her early life and how she grappled with being a Black woman in a society that supported white men so heavily.

“Still I Rise”, performed by Maya Angelou

Angelou described the first time that she heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak on nonviolence that it was what she was waiting for. “It was like pouring water on a parched desert.”[2] This motivated her to participate in the civil rights movement and she helped the Southern Christian Leadership Conference stage a “Cabaret for Freedom.”[3] Shortly after her early work in the civil rights movement Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt and then to Ghana where she worked as a journalist/editor and administrator at the University of Ghana.[4] While in Ghana, Malcolm X visited and announced he was creating the Organization of African-American Unity. The ideals of the organization spoke to Maya deeply and she decided to move back to the US in 1964 and join the organization.[5]

Back in the U.S,. Angelou worked closely with both Dr. King and Malcom X on their work for the civil rights movement. After Malcom X was assassinated and the Organization of African-American Unity crumbled, she worked more heavily on the Southern Christian leadership with Dr. King.[6] She remained a leader in the civil rights movement and was an influential woman in the nonviolent piece of it.

“The Africans in South Africa often said they had been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1958. Well, we were going to give them something new, something visionary, to look up to. After we had cleansed ourselves and our country of hate, they would be able to study our methods, take heart from our example and let freedom ring in their country as it would ring in ours.”[7]

After the civil rights movement, Maya continued her work as an activist but also remained doing what she loved as an artist. She won a Tony award, an Emmy award and three Grammys for her art.[8] She immersed herself into theatre as well as her poetry and produced beautiful work that granted her the opportunity to read an inaugural poem for Bill Clinton in 1993[9] Angelou also continued working as an educator later in her life and found passion in speaking about prison reform and how the current prison-industrial complex treats Black youth.[10] Maya Angelou passed away in 2014 at the age of 86, but lives on in her beautiful and profound autobiographies, poems, essays, plays and movies as well the lives she changed through her nonviolent activism.

[1] Biography: Caged Bird Legacy.” Caged Bird Legacy | The Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou, May 3, 2021.

[2]‘Its Name was Freedom’: Maya Angelou’s Political Awakening by Martin Luther King.” BBC Arts. BBC. Accessed August 23, 2021.

[3] Mitchell, Jerry. “Maya Angelou Not JUST Poet, but Civil Rights Activist.” Ledger. The Clarion-Ledger., May 29, 2014.

[4] “Maya Angelou.” NCpedia. Accessed August 23, 2021.

[5] Angelou, Maya. A Song Flung up to Heaven. London: Virago Press, 2008.

[6] “Maya Angelou.” NCpedia. Accessed August 23, 2021.

[7] Angelou, Maya. A Song Flung up to Heaven. London: Virago Press, 2008.

[8] “Maya Angelou’s BIOGRAPHY.” The HistoryMakers. Accessed August 23, 2021.

[9] “Maya Angelou.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed August 23, 2021.

[10] Craig, Jack. “Prison Labor and Mass Incarceration.” Just and Fair, April 19, 2020.