Maya Angelou’s first years after leaving Stamps, Ark., would not be easy. The long, difficult journey she faced, however, would inspire millions.
By 1942, at the age of 14, she was a dropout. She worked as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco, becoming the first African-American woman to hold the position. She returned to school and graduated but found herself as an unwed, teenaged mother at 17. She struggled to support herself and her son as a cook and waitress. In the 1950s, she turned to music and dance, performing in clubs in San Francisco and New York. Her talent was impressive, and she toured Europe in the mid-1950s in a production of Porgy and Bess, and in 1957, recorded an album of calypso music, called Miss Calypso. Her hard work on the stage earned her a reputation in the African-American artistic community.
In the 1960s, she went to Africa. Here, she worked with many revolutionary leaders across the continent and worked closely with the community of African-American intellectuals and activists who had come to Africa. In 1962, she worked as the editor of an English-language weekly newspaper in Egypt, The Arab Observer. Later, she and her son moved to Ghana, where she would work in the administration at the national university while also working as a writer for The African Review, The Ghanian Times, and Radio Ghana.
She would return to the United States in 1965 and continued to work with civil rights. In 1968, Martin Luther King had asked Angelou to become the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference but was killed before Angelou was able, dying on her birthday. Knowing her level of sadness, her friends urged her to pursue a writing career. She threw herself into her work, quickly writing and developing a documentary on the history of blues and blues artists. Her first of seven autobiographies would appear in 1969, followed by her first of 17 books of poetry in 1971.
Angelou once explained that her love of poetry came from her years spent with her grandmother in Stamps. “Still I Rise,” one of her most famous, first appeared in 1978. The poem became famous for its declarations that race and femininity would not hold her back, “You may tread me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
1981, she became a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. In the 1990s, she would write a series of seven children’s books. She has now written more than 30 books altogether and regularly gives speeches around the world. She would win two Grammy awards for readings of her works and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. She continues to write and give lectures around the country today.