Angelou experienced a difficult childhood and witnessed firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination while growing up in Arkansas. After a traumatizing encounter at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Angelou stopped talking and returned to Arkansas where she spent five years as a mute.
She got her voice back after connecting with Mrs. Flowers, an African American woman who explained the importance of education and helped nurture her love of poetry. After graduating from high school, Angelou earned a scholarship to take lessons in dance and drama at the California Labor School. By the mid-1950s, her career as a performer began to take off and she secured roles in touring productions such as Porgy and Bess.
Angelou was nominated for a Tony award twice; once for her Broadway debut in Look Away (1973), and for her performance in Roots (1977). She joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s and was connected with the likes of James Baldwin and other important writers. Angelou also decided to take part in the civil rights movement after listening to a Dr. Martin Luther King speech and becoming inspired. Dr. King offered her a position as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Angelou also became close to fellow activist, Malcolm X, and helped him establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
In 1969 she published her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and it became the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. In addition to her work in the arts and activism, Angelou became involved with politics and was given roles in both the Ford and Carter administration. In 2000, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Clinton and in 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Angelou ended her career as an educator at Wake Forest University and was awarded more than 50 honorary degrees.
Angelou died on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.