Maya Angelou: From Creole cook to presidential poet

Many Americans who think of Maya Angelou, think of the six-foot-tall, African-American woman who read her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," during President Clinton's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1993. Not since Robert Frost read his work in 1961 for John F. Kennedy had a poet taken part in this ceremony.

But book lovers, poetry afficionados, television and movie viewers, theatergoers, social activists, and students all recognize her for different works. Maya Angelou's life path goes as far, and takes as many twists and turns, as the mighty Mississippi, near where she was born in 1928.

Maya Angelou, born as Marguerite Johnson, was a St. Louis native whose childhood was largely shaped by transition, by being separated from her parents and by being raped. Shortly after she moved to San Francisco at age 12 to be reunited with her mother, she discovered the world of dance, as well as becoming the city's first black streetcar conductor. She graduated from high school in 1945 and soon after had a son. For the next five years Angelou held such jobs as a Creole cook and a nightclub waitress.

But she never let the arts slip far from her sights. In the early '50s, she toured the world as a singer in Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," only to return to the US in 1955 to perform off-Broadway, record an album, and join the Harlem Writers' Guild.

It was in New York that her life-long penchant for theater melded with a growing political awareness. She joined the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after hearing him speak in Harlem.

She left the US in 1961, this time for Cairo with her new husband, a South African freedom fighter. Angelou edited and wrote for various publications, and taught at the University of Ghana, where her son was studying.

After returning to California, she wrote the autobiographical "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in 1970, followed by a stream of other writings - both books and poetry. Since then, she has received Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and Emmy nominations, as well as a Grammy for the album that included the inauguration poem. She recently directed the movie "Down in the Delta," and continues to write.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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