Maya Angelou: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About The People’s Poet

Maya Angelou. Just the name evokes a number of powerful images. Maya Angelou the author, the poet, the actress, the civil rights leader. Maya Angelou, the “people’s poet.” By now, most of you know that Maya Angelou passed away Wednesday morning, May 28, at the age of 86.

If you’ve been following the news, you may also know that Maya Angelou was scheduled to be awarded by Major League Baseball during last week’s Negro League Tribute week, but had to cancel her attendance at the festivities due to ailing health. You may even know that she weighed in on the Donald Sterling controversy.

Chances are you already know the high points. You can probably rattle off her “first African American woman to ________” accomplishments. There’s no shortage of them. You may even know – if you’ve been following the news – that President Barack Obama, upon hearing of her passing said this about Maya Angelou:

“(Maya Angelou) had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children, that we all have something to offer.”

If you’re like most of us, who are casual admirers of the I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings author, however, there are plenty of things you probably didn’t know about Maya Angelou. To honor her memory, here are 10 things most of us didn’t know about the People’s Poet:

10. She wanted to write a cookbook with her mother. Maya was an accomplished cook and considered cooking “another form of communication.” She did write two cookbooks herself, but regretted not fulfilling one of her mother’s wishes to write a cookbook together.

9. Dr. Angelou was appointed to official positions by presidents from both political parties. According to her entry in The Encyclopedia of World Biography, Dr. Maya Angelou was appointed to the Bicentennial Commission by Republican President Gerald Ford and to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year by his successor, Democrat President Jimmy Carter.

8. Maya was one of only two living poets to recite a poem during a presidential inauguration. She recited On the Pulse of Morning, a poem she had written especially for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

7. Dr. Angelou was a survivor. She was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was seven or eight (accounts vary). In all fairness, those who have read her work probably knew this one, but it’s important to include as a testament to what a survivor can achieve.

6. Maya was the first black cable car operator in San Francisco. We’ve tried to avoid the “first African American” accomplishments, because we figure most of you have heard them, but this one was kind of different. Maya was a single, teenage mother trying to provide for herself and her son before she became internationally known for her acting and writing.

5. Maya’s birthday was April 4. She didn’t celebrate it for many years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on that date, though she did regularly send flowers to Coretta Scott King, MLK’s widow.

4. Angelou didn’t speak for several years as a child because she felt guilty when her uncles beat her rapist to death.

3. Maya was in a mixed marriage. She married a Greek sailor. Although the marriage lasted only five years, she used an adapted version of her married surname, Angelopulos, as her nom de plume, according to an entry in Bio.

2. Dr. Maya Angelou was one award short of the ultra-rare feat of joining the EGOT Club of artists who have won an Emmy (Angelou won hers for Roots), a Grammy (Maya won her award for her recording of On the Pulse of Morning), an Oscar (the one award Maya Angelou lacked) and a Tony, which she won for her part in Look Away.

1. Critics were critical – go figure – of Maya Angelou’s work, with many of them criticizing her use of short sentences and simple vocabulary. Then again, there’s a reason why critics are critics and Maya Angelou will always be “The People’s Poet.”

Chances are, those of you who are avid fans of Dr. Angelou knew many of these, while those of you – like me – who read some of her work in high school and college – weren’t aware of them. If you knew most of these facts about Maya Angelou, consider leaving a respectful comment or fact about the People’s Poet that the rest of us may not know.

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