I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : A Maya Angelou Primer

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : A Maya Angelou Primer

There are no shortage of inspirational Maya Angelou quotes to be found that are poignant and meaningful . As a memoirist, poet and activist Angelou words speak of joy and hope without shying away from the realities of life - especially her own. She has been described as “the Black woman’s poet laureate”, and one of the first Black female writers to discuss her personal life in searing honesty and frankness. She had a long and fascinating life which a pithy quotation cannot begin to encapsulate. Here is a brief biography and a primer on some of her most celebrated works.

She was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1928, raised by both her parents and her paternal grandmother. She credits her teacher and family friend, Mrs Bertha Flowers, with introducing her to the literature that would go on to influence her life and writing.

She wore many hats - her first job was a bus conductor. At 16 she became the first ever Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. “I saw women on the street cars with their little changer belts. They had caps with bibs on them and form-fitting jackets. I loved their uniforms. I said that is the job I want,” Angelou told Oprah Winfrey during an interview.

She was a dancer, singer and actor. In the early 1950s she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco. It was at this time she changed her name to “Maya Angelou”, a combination of her nickname and her first husband’s surname. She later toured Europe with a theatre production of Porgy and Bess.

She spoke several languages. When she toured Europe with Porgy and Bess, she took the opportunity to pick up multiple languages wherever she travelled.

She wrote seven autobiographies. In 1959, she moved to New York City and joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild, met scores of other Black artists and writers and launched her own writing career. In 1969, she published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her most famous and acclaimed book. Her last autobiography was published in 2013, at the age of 85.

Her books have been censored. Parents have challenged their inclusion in libraries and school curriculum due to content featuring violence and sexually explicit scenes. However, other teachers and professors have used her biographies as a way to talk about racism in the classroom, as a framework for how children can examine white privilege and how to succeed despite obstacles.

She was a life-long activist. Beginning in 1960, after meeting Martin Luther King Jr, she organised the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She was a hugely influential fundraiser and organiser. Later in the 1960s, she established the Organisation of Afro-American Unity with Malcom X., shortly before his death. In 2008, she campaigned in the Democratic Primaries in support of Hillary Clinton and later, Barack Obama. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

She has more than thirty honorary degrees from universities and colleges all over the world. In 1981, she became a lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

She was known for her cooking skills. In later life, she hosted several dinner celebrations a year at her home in North Carolina, for which invitations were highly sought after. She went on to write two cookbooks which combined recipes with little vignettes.



Some Favourite Inspirational Maya Angelou Quotes:

“ I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. “

Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time. “

“ When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. “

“ If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded. “


"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Leave a comment:

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published