Maya Angelou: Five things you may not know about the African American author, poet and singer

Her birthday is the same date as the assassination of her friend and colleague in the US civil rights movement, Dr Martin Luther King Jr

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 04 April 2018 09:21 BST
Google Doodle celebrates Dr. Maya Angelou’s 90th Birthday

Maya Angelou, who would have been 90 on 4 April, remains one of America’s most influential writers, artists and cultural figureheads.

Her series of seven autobiographical works, beginning with the seminal coming of age story, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, overhauled the memoir genre, tackling rape, racism and trauma and catapulted Angelou to international acclaim.

Her birthday is the same date as the assassination of her friend and colleague in the US civil rights movement, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, whom she met in 1960 after hearing him speak.

Following the meeting, Angelou, who was already a successful singer, organised the Cabaret for Freedom to support Dr King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1968 Dr King asked her to organise a civil rights march, to which she agreed, but it came shortly before he was assassinated.

She had also become friends with Malcolm X, who she met in Ghana, where she lived during the early 1960s, working as a writer and editor as well as broadcasting on radio. In 1965 she returned to the US to help him create a new civil rights organisation - the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, but he was assassinated shortly afterwards.

While living a life full enough to write seven acclaimed autobiographies makes condensing Angelou’s extraordinary life into a short article an impossible task, here are five things you may not have known about her.

She was a professional dancer

In her early 20s, recently married and with a young son, Angelou began studying modern dance in San Francisco. She formed the dance team Al and Rita, before Angelou decided to move to New York in order to study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus. She went on to dance professionally in clubs in San Francisco, including at the famous beat-era nightclub, The Purple Onion.

Her success as a calypso dancer paved the way for Angelou to record her first album as a singer, Miss Calypso.

She won a Grammy award

Though Angelou saw success as a singer, she won a Grammy award in 1995 not for her many musical works, but for a recording of her poem On The Pulse of Morning, which she recited at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.

The recitation was the first at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost at President John F Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.

She directed a film starring Wesley Snipes

Wesley Snipes, whose more famous roles are for action films such as Demolition Man and the Blade trilogy, was among the cast in Angelou’s 1996 film Down in the Delta.

The film explored family tragedy, drugs, race and prejudice, and redemption.

Her writing routine involved sherry, the bible and a deck of cards

Angelou’s writing routine remains the stuff of legends.

According to several sources, in later life when already a successful writer, Angelou would get up at 5am and check into a hotel room where staff had been told to take down any pictures from the walls.

She would then lie on the bed with a bottle of sherry, Roget’s Thesaurus and the Bible, as well as a deck of cards to play Solitaire with. She wrote on yellow legal pads and reportedly averaged 10-12 pages a day, which she then edited down to three or four pages in the evening.

She wrote about working in the sex trade to help people speak about their experiences

According to her autobiographies, Angelou worked as a prostitute and also as a madame for lesbian prostitutes.

In a 1995 interview, she explained the importance of writing about these subjects.

She said: “I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, 'I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? - never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.' They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, 'Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.' They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives.”

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