Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Dr. Maya Angelou was never named an official United States Poet Laureate, but few have reached her level of cultural significance. Her verses are at the very heart of the American experience.
Yet she didn’t start out as a poet. She began her artistic career as a dancer, performing in San Francisco and training in New York City. But that was just the tip of the iceberg for a woman who lived an incredible, adventurous life that defied a humble childhood.
Here are 10 facts about Maya Angelou, who would have turned 90 years old today.
1. SHE WAS THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO CONDUCT A CABLE CAR IN SAN FRANCISCO.
As a teenager, Maya Angelou earned a scholarship to study dance and drama at the California Labor School, but she briefly dropped out when she was 16 to become a cable car conductor in San Francisco. “I saw women on the street cars with their little changer belts,” she told Oprah Winfrey, explaining why she wanted the job. “They had caps with bibs on them and form-fitting jackets. I loved their uniforms. I said that is the job I want.” She got it, and became the first black woman to hold the position.
2. PORGY AND BESS TOOK HER TO EUROPE.
After actors spotted her singing in a nightclub and asked if she could dance, Angelou got her foot in the door to join a touring company for Porgy and Bess. She turned down a lead role in a Broadway production of House of Flowers to join the company because it gave her the opportunity to travel throughout Europe. "The producers of House of Flowers asked me, 'Are you crazy? You're going to take a minimal role in a play going on the road when we're offering you a principal role for a Broadway play?,'" Angelou recalled to NPR. "I said, I'm going to Europe. I'm going to get a chance to see places I ordinarily would never see, I only dreamed of in the little village in Arkansas in which I grew up. Oh, no, I'm going with Porgy and Bess." She said it was the one of the best decisions she ever made.
3. SHE SPOKE SIX LANGUAGES.
Angelou's time in Europe also gave her the chance to hear other languages, and she paid very close attention. Ultimately, she learned to speak French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, and Fante (a dialect of Akan native to Ghana).
4. SHE DIDN’T SPEAK FOR FIVE YEARS IN HER YOUTH.
When she was just a child, Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother about the incident, and was later called to testify against the man in court, which led to his conviction. Ultimately, he served just one day in jail. Four days after his release, he was murdered—presumably by one of Angelou's family members—and Angelou blamed herself for his death.
“I thought, my voice killed him,” she later wrote of her attacker. “I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone." For the next five years, Angelou refused to speak. Literature helped her find her voice again.
5. SHE EDITED THE ARAB OBSERVER.
The Arab Observer was one of very few English-language news outlets in the Middle East during its publication from 1960 to 1966. While traveling in Egypt, Angelou met and married civil rights activist Vusumzi Make, and, after moving to Cairo, she scored a job as an editor for the Observer after W.E.B. Du Bois’s stepson David fudged her credentials. She’d never worked as a journalist before, but her job at the Observer tossed her into the deep end of reporting while working in an office full of men who’d never worked with a woman before.
"Du Bois said I was an experienced journalist, wife of a freedom fighter, and an expert administrator," Angelou said. "Would I be interested in the job of associate editor? If so I should realize that since I was neither Egyptian, Arabic, nor Moslem and since I would be the only woman working in the office, things would not be easy. He mentioned a salary that sounded like pots of gold to my ears."
6. SHE WROTE AND DIRECTED SEVERAL MOVIES.
By the end of her career, there were very few art forms Angelou hadn’t participated in (which is how she wound up with both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize nomination and three Grammy wins), but it’s still delightfully surprising to know that Angelou was also a filmmaker. She first acted and sang in 1957’s Calypso Heat Wave but eventually turned to screenwriting for 1972’s Georgia, Georgia (a romance about an African American singer who falls in love while performing in Stockholm), and then to directing with 1998’s Down in the Delta starring Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes.
7. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. WAS ASSASSINATED ON HER BIRTHDAY.
Angelou was friends with James Baldwin and had planned to help Malcolm X build the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a new civil rights organization, shortly before his assassination. She was also a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and organized with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In early 1968, Dr. King asked Angelou to tour the country to promote the SCLC, but she postponed in order to plan her birthday party. It was on her 40th birthday, April 4, 1968, that Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. His death sent her into a deep depression.
8. SHE WAS ONLY THE SECOND POET IN HISTORY TO RECITE WORK AT A PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION.
When President John F. Kennedy took the oath of office in 1961, the legendary Robert Frost became the first poet to participate in the inauguration ceremony. Lending her voice to President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Angelou was the first poet since Frost to enjoy the honor of the august platform, reading the centuries-spanning epic “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she wrote for the occasion. Her recitation scored her a 1994 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
9. SHE WAS AN AVID CHEF, AND WROTE TWO COOKBOOKS.
Is there anything Angelou couldn’t do? She used Hallelujah! The Welcome Table to explore recipes that held personal meaning for her, and with Great Food, All Day Long, she shared an abiding love of preparing meals for others while focusing on healthy courses. “If this book finds its way into the hands of bold, adventurous people, courageous enough to actually get into the kitchen and rattle pots and pans, I will be very happy,” Angelou wrote in the introduction to the latter title.
10. SHE HAD HER OWN LINE OF HALLMARK GREETING CARDS.
In 2000, at the age of 72, Angelou penned a series of two-sentence sentiments for the iconic greeting card company that adorned cards and serving dishes. Fully aware she’d face criticism for diminishing her stature with a commercial venture (including from her own publisher at Random House), she responded by saying, “If I’m America’s poet, or one of them, then I want to be in people’s hands. All people’s hands. People who would never buy a book.”