She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years.
Born on April 4, 1928, Angelou had been writing poetry since before her novels became popular.
Her collections include: Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie (1971); Oh Pray My Wings Are Going to Fit Me Well (1975); And Still I Rise (1976), which was made into an Off-Broadway production in 1979; Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing (1983); Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, illustrated by celebrated New York artist Jean Michel Basquiat (1993); Soul Looks Back in Wonder (1994); and I Shall Not Be Moved (1997).
Angelou’s poetry, with its short lyrics and jazzy rhythms, is especially popular among young people, but her heavy use of short lines and her simple vocabulary has turned off several critics.
Other reviewers, however, praise Angelou’s poetry for discussing social and political issues that are important to African Americans.
For example Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which she recited at the 1993 swearing in of President Bill Clinton (1946–), calls for a new national commitment to unity and social improvement. Angelou also worked in television as a writer-producer for 20th Century-Fox, from which her full-length feature, film Sister, Sister received critical praise.
In addition she wrote the screenplays Georgia, Georgia and All Day Long along with television scripts for Sister, Sister and the series premiere of Brewster Place.
She wrote, produced, and hosted the National Educational Television series Blacks! Blues! Black! She also co-starred in the motion picture How to Make an American Quilt in 1995. Angelou made her first attempt at film directing with the feature length movie Down in the Delta (1998).
The film told the story of a seventy-year-old woman and her personal journey.
In 1951, Angelou married Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother.
She took modern dance classes during this time, and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford.
Angelou and Ailey formed a dance team, calling themselves “Al and Rita”, and performed modern dance at fraternal black organizations throughout San Francisco, but never became successful.
Angelou, her new husband, and her son moved to New York City so she could study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed, but “postpones again”, and in what Gillespie calls “a macabre twist of fate”, he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4).
Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by her friend James Baldwin.
As Gillespie states, “If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou’s spirit and creative genius”.
Despite having almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated Blacks, Blues, Black!, a ten-part series of documentaries about the connection between blues music and black Americans’ African heritage, and what Angelou called the “Africanisms still current in the U.S.” for National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS.