To say that Maya Angelou had an incredible life would be an understatement. Her career alone included work as a dancer, singer, actress, movie director, composer, civil rights activist, teacher, journalist, poet, and public speaker — and, of course, she also wrote seven autobiographies, most famously the first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Through her writing, Angelou recounted both the highs and lows of her life, often with brutal honesty but always from a place of love and hope. Yet there are still some aspects of her story that remain relatively unknown.
Maya Angelou was not her real name
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928. “Maya” was the nickname her older brother gave her, while “Angelou” was a version of the surname of her Greek ex-husband, whom she married in 1951.
Angelou didn’t speak for five years
When she was eight, Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. She testified against him in court, which led to his conviction, but he served only one day in jail. Four days after his release, he was murdered. Angelou blamed her own words for his death: “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.” She didn’t speak for five years after the event, until her love of poetry brought back her voice.
She worked as a streetcar operator in San Francisco
Angelou was 16 when she landed a job as a streetcar operator in San Francisco, reportedly the first Black female streetcar operator in the city. She was drawn to the job because, as she said, “The thought of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark-blue uniform, with a money changer at my belt, caught my fancy.”
She followed the same writing ritual for years
Angelou had a very particular writing ritual. She would reserve a hotel room, with instructions to remove any paintings and decorations from the walls. Arriving early in the morning, she would write on yellow legal pads while lying on the bed, and the only items in the room were a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible. “When I am writing,” she explained, “I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness.”
She spoke at least six languages
During the mid-1950s, while touring Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess, Angelou became fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian. Later, in the 1960s, she lived in both Egypt and Ghana, where she learned Arabic and the West African language Fanti. But her favorite language was her mother tongue. “English remains the most beautiful of languages,” she told The Paris Review. “It will do anything.”
She wrote two cookbooks
Angelou authored two cookbooks, Great Food, All Day Long and Hallelujah! The Welcome Table. She recognized that some people might think it strange for a writer of her literary caliber to pen recipes, but believed that “writing and cookery are just two different means of communication.”
She appeared on Sesame Street
Angelou made a handful of appearances on the beloved PBS children’s program, singing and dancing with Muppets such as Elmo and Herry Monster. Angelou’s personal philosophy had much in common with that of the Muppets and their creator, Jim Henson, in terms of passion and positivity. “Love recognizes no barriers,” she wrote. “It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
She wrote for Hallmark
The greeting-card giant Hallmark tried to convince Angelou to write for them for several years, and eventually she agreed. Her editor at Random House wasn’t happy with the decision, but Angelou nonetheless wrote about 100 sentiments (about 90% of which were original) for a range of cards, pillows, mugs, and other items. “If I'm America’s poet, or one of them, then I want to be in people’s hands,” Angelou said of her decision. “All people’s hands, people who would never buy a book.”
She was the first Black woman to appear on the quarter
In January 2022, the U.S. Mint began shipping out the first quarters featuring trailblazing American women, starting with Maya Angelou — the first Black woman to appear on the coin. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who helped draft legislation for the coin, said that people who held the quarter in their hand should be reminded of Angelou’s own words: “Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.”
She won three Grammy Awards
While some Grammy Award-winning musicians have had success as writers — Steve Earle, Madonna, and Bob Dylan, to name a few — it’s not so common for writers to take home the music industry’s most prestigious award. Angelou, however, received three Grammys for her spoken word albums — a nice addition to her plethora of other honors, which include a Pulitzer Prize nomination and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images