10 Inspiring Facts About Maya Angelou

Scott Eells, Getty Images
Scott Eells, Getty Images

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.

Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

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.

STEPHEN JAFFE, AFP/Getty Images

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.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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13 Things You Might Not Know About H.P. Lovecraft

Crabitha, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Crabitha, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Though it’s been more than a century since H.P. Lovecraft was born, the writer’s weird fiction and cosmic horror remain both influential and problematic. Lovecraft’s ghastly tales of alien gods, bloodguilty families, and collapsing civilizations have influenced authors like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. The new HBO horror series Lovecraft Country—which was created by Misha Green and executive produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out) and J.J. Abrams (Star Wars)—explores 1950s racism via dramatic encounters with Lovecraftian monsters. Check out some facts about this twisted soul from Providence, Rhode Island. (Warning: Some of the sources linked within contain offensive and racist language.)

1. H.P. Lovecraft had a tough childhood.

Born on August 20, 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft grew up under tragic, bizarre circumstances. His father, suffering from what was likely syphilis-induced psychosis, entered Providence’s Butler Hospital in 1893 and died there in 1898. (His mother went into the same mental hospital after World War I.) Lovecraft’s grandfather told him horror stories, and Lovecraft honed his lurid imagination by devouring Edgar Allan Poe and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. After his grandfather’s death, his family fell into poverty, and he had a nervous breakdown before graduating high school.

2. H.P. Lovecraft’s iconic monsters have murky origins.

When Lovecraft, at age 5, lost his grandmother, his mother and aunts wore eerie black mourning dresses. His subsequent nightmares may have inspired his black-winged, demonic Night-Gaunts. Another of his monsters, Dagon, is a water denizen with a “hideous head” and “scaly arms,” and the name, which Lovecraft first used in a 1919 short story, matches that of the Biblical god of the Philistines. And the infamous Cthulhu, a gigantic octopus-dragon hybrid, may reflect Lovecraft’s hatred of seafood.

3. H.P. Lovecraft co-wrote a short story about Egypt with Harry Houdini.

In 1924, the editor of Weird Tales paid Lovecraft $100 to write “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” based on Houdini’s claim that he’d once been kidnapped and trapped underground near the Great Pyramid of Giza. Lovecraft figured this was bogus, but did extensive Egyptological research. The legendary magician offered Lovecraft more projects, but died in 1926 before they could collaborate further.

4. H.P. Lovecraft struggled to support himself.

Reclusive and socially inept, Lovecraft scraped by financially, sometimes by living with his family, sometimes being supported by his wife Sonia Greene. He wrote more than 60 short stories, plus some novels and novellas, but also penned an estimated 100,000 letters to friends and fans. Sometimes he skipped meals to pay for postage.

5. Metal bands are obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft.

Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be” invoke Lovecraft’s greatest monster, as does Cradle of Filth’s “Cthulhu Dawn.” Black Sabbath’s “Behind The Wall of Sleep” is inspired by a 1919 Lovecraft story. Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth derived his stage name from Azathoth, one of Lovecraft’s gods. The list goes on.

6. H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness influenced the movie Alien.

Alien writer Dan O’Bannon was influenced by Lovecraft’s 1936 novella about an ill-fated Antarctica expedition. Both stories involve explorers getting attacked by mysterious creatures in an unfamiliar environment, and the Alien somewhat physically resembles Cthulhu. Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed the facehuggers and chestbursters in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic, released a surreal art book entitled Necronomicon, named after Lovecraft’s oft-cited spellbook.

7. Providence, Rhode Island, abounds with H.P. Lovecraft-related tourist attractions.

The city features the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences store and Lovecraft’s grave, among other highlights. Plus, Brown University houses the world’s largest collection of Lovecraft papers.

8. H.P. Lovecraft had a love-hate relationship with New York.

While residing in Brooklyn, Lovecraft enjoyed roaming around the Big Apple in search of ideas and hobnobbing with other literary types in the Kalem Club. However, 1927’s “Horror at Red Hook,” a story set in the neighborhood and involving occult sacrifices, displayed his xenophobia.

9. H.P. Lovecraft loved cats.

In a pompous essay entitled “Cats and Dogs,” he wrote: “The cat is such a perfect symbol of beauty and superiority that it seems scarcely possible for any true aesthete and civilised cynic to do other than worship it.” Horror stories like “The Cats of Ulthar” and “The Rats in the Walls” also reflect his penchant for felines. As a boy, Lovecraft owned a black cat whose name was a racial slur.

10. H.P. Lovecraft was extremely racist.

There’s no avoiding it: Lovecraft’s fiction, poetry, and correspondence include bigoted statements about Black, Jewish, and Irish people—among many other backgrounds. He admired Hitler and supported white supremacy. Recently, his troubling legacy has come under the microscope.

11. The World Fantasy Awards stopped using H.P. Lovecraft statuettes after the 2015 awards.

These awards, which have taken place annually since 1975, honor the best fantasy fiction published the year before. Winners used to receive a small bust of Lovecraft. That tradition ended due to his racist history. YA author Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper) petitioned to replace it with an Octavia Butler statuette. However, in 2017, the organizers unveiled a new design with a tree in front of a full moon.

12. A Wisconsin publishing house pumped up H.P. Lovecraft’s fame after his death.

If August Derleth and Donald Wandrei hadn’t co-founded Arkham House in Sauk City, Wisconsin, Lovecraft’s work might have languished in obscurity. After Lovecraft died of cancer at age 46 in 1937, Derleth and Wandrei wanted to put out a hardcover anthology of his fiction. When no established publisher bit, they published The Outsider and Others themselves in 1939. More omnibuses followed, and over the decades, Lovecraft became a household name.

13. H.P. Lovecraft continues to influence popular culture.

Besides Lovecraft Country, there are lots of recent reimaginings to choose from. South Park spoofed Cthulhu in 2010. Lovecraft’s influence on the 2016-launched Netflix series Stranger Things is well-documented. Between 2016 and 2018, Mark Hamill and Christopher Plummer lent their voices to the animated Howard Lovecraft film trilogy by Arcana Studio. Also, Nicolas Cage stars in the 2019 movie Color Out of Space, based on the Lovecraft story of that name.