16 Little-Known Facts About The Legendary Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was one phenomenal woman.

Angelou rose to fame during a tumultuous time in America’s racial history and broke barriers for black women through her legendary contributions to art and culture. Now, a new documentary is airing on PBS on Tuesday titled “American Masters ― Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” takes an in-depth look at Angelou’s life and legacy and how she inspired millions around the world with her work.

Angelou was an actor, singer, playwright, poet, author, teacher, dancer and advocate, but Rita Colburn Whack, the co-director and co-producer of the film, says she hopes viewers see Angelou’s full humanity.

“[She was also] a human being with wants, desires, struggles and fears and…she [was] determined to overcome them,” Whack told The Huffington Post. “Maya Angelou was a woman who decided to overcome every obstacle set in front of her during a time when black girls and later black women were ignored, abused and dismissed,” she added.

The film, which is largely told from Angelou’s perspective through recordings taped before her May 2014 death, also includes commentary from some of her close friends and family members including her son Guy Johnson, actors Cicely Tyson and Alfre Woodard, Louis Gossett Jr. and politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton.

From her early days as a mute and timid pre-teen to her rise as a legendary storyteller, the documentary explores how Angelou lived a life that impressed and inspired many. However, the film, which goes into great detail about many aspects of Angelou’s life, also shares some interesting little-known facts about her from over the years. We’ve shared some of these facts below and encourage you to watch the film to learn more about Angelou’s iconic legacy:

1. One of the earliest memories she had was being sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas at the age of 3.

Maya’s father and mother sent her and her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas when Angelou was the tender age of three. In the film, Angelou recounts how they boarded the train to their grandmother’s house with no adult supervision and the resentment she felt towards her parents for sending them away.

2. Her grandmother ran the only black-owned store in the town and taught her to read.

Annie Henderson, who Angelou referred to as “Momma,” was the child of a former slave and the only black person in Stamps, Arkansas to own a general store at the time Angelou was sent to live with her. Henderson taught Angelou how to read and would often bring back books from the local white schools in town for Angelou and her brother to indulge in.

3. Her brother Bailey further encouraged her to read and absorb everything she could.

In the film, Angelou said that, growing up, her brother Bailey played a big role in encouraging her to read and learn. “Just learn everything, put it in your brain. You’re smarter than everybody around here, except me of course,” she recalled him telling her with laughter. “And he was right, he was smart. But he was also protective of me.”

4. Her family was terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan growing up.

Growing up black in Stamps, Arkansas amid the racial terror that swept the nation was painful and difficult, Angelou said in the film. She reflected on one fearful night in her childhood involving her Uncle Willie, who was crippled and had been accused by a white girl who claimed she attempted to touch him. In an effort to help keep him safe from the Ku Klux Klan, Angelou, who said the KKK rode on their horses past her grandmother’s store in search of her uncle, helped to hide him in the den of the store and bury him in a box beneath dozens of onions and potatoes.

5. Angelou was raped at the age of seven. She didn’t speak for five years after.

Angelou and her brother temporarily moved to St. Louis to live with their mother who was dating a man. Angelou said he was “intoxicated” with her mother and later raped Angelou when she was seven years-old. Police later found him killed and it had appeared he had been kicked to death. Angelou, who shared the name of her rapist to her brother, felt guilt and anguish from his death, so much so her “7-year-old logic told me that my voice had killed a man,” she says in the film. “So I stopped speaking for five years.”

Angelou was eventually sent back to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas where she said she spent her time reading every book in the black school library and all the books she could get from the white school library, memorizing the works of famous poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare and more.

6. Angelou was always truthful and honest ― even when it came to sex.

Angelou was a beautiful, towering teenager who had attracted the attention of a young boy who had expressed sexual interest in her. One day, Angelou, who said she had seen films about sex that spiked her curiosity, said she approached the young boy and the two had sex at a friend’s house. Although it was her first time having sexual intercourse, Angelou admitted that the experience had been underwhelming. “I asked him ‘Is that all there is?” she said in the film. “So I said, ‘Ok, bye.’ And a month later I found out I was pregnant.”

7. She has had two interracial marriages, both of which ended shortly after they began.

Maya Angelou met and wed Tosh Angelos in 1951. He was a Greek sailor who had shared a deep love for reading. This was a significant deal at the time considering the racial tensions that existed and the polarizing issues around interracial marriages. She said her mother had initially been disgusted with her for marrying a white man, and later fell for him, even expressing disappointment when the couple divorced less than five years later. She later wed Paul du Feu, a white writer, in 1973 but divorced less than a decade later.

8. She worked in nightclubs and quickly gained exposure for her singing and dancing. She soon became known as Ms. Calypso.

In the 1950s, Angelou worked in nightclubs and strip clubs in San Francisco. While she didn’t strip off her clothes, she did show off her fabulous dance moves and would sing Calypso songs whenever she went out. She was later invited to sing Calypso at local venues and became known as Ms. Calpyso, performing in venues at a time when stars like Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr. hit their peak.

9. Angelou was heartbroken after not landing a big role on Broadway.

In 1967, Angelou was considered to be actress Pearl Bailey’s understudy in the Broadway play “Hello Dolly.” It was a dream opportunity for Angelou and one that would allow her to better financially support her son. However, while the director and producer of the play both loved her, Angelou’s son claims in one heartbreaking part of the film that it was Bailey who said: “Oh no — I ain’t gonna have this big old ugly girl be my understudy.’” Later in life, Bailey received a Lifetime Achievement Award and dedicated the honor to Angelou.

10. She was invited to New York by Langston Hughes where she met other famous black writers.

Shortly after her rejection from Broadway, Angelou began writing and befriended famous black writers like Langston Hughes who persuaded her to move to New York to join the Harlem Writers Guild, which is now the oldest organization of African American writers. She soon met writer James Baldwin, and the two grew to be close friends who had much respect and love for each other.

11. She portrayed a white queen in a play alongside Cicely Tyson and Louis Gossett Jr.

In 1960, Angelou, alongside other popular black actors Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett Jr.  and James Earl Jones, starred in a play titled “The Blacks,” which featured an all-black cast with half of the cast portraying white characters. The play was polarizing and offered various statements on the state of race. Angelou portrayed a white queen, a role that was “quite fascinating,” as Tyson describes in the film.”[The play] was a piece that shook everyone.”

12. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on her birthday.

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, which marked Angelou’s 40th birthday. His death rocked Angelou so much so she said she fell into a brief stage of mutism again. After about five days, she said Baldwin knocked on her door and ordered her to go with him to their friend’s home, Jules and Judy Feiffer, to share company and conversation. That night, Angelou told so many great stories about her life, that Judy Feiffer called Robert Loomis, an editor at Random House, and insisted that she had a book in her of some kind.

13. She turned down the opportunity to write an autobiography several times. 

Loomis had called Angelou several times and tried to implore her to write an autobiography, a request she declined for months. She said she had been more interesting in writing plays and poetry. “Finally he said, ‘Ms. Angelou, I won’t call you again because writing autobiography as literature is almost impossible,’” she recalled in the film. “I said, ‘Well, in that case, I’ll try.’” So, she started to write and soon published her first novel “I know why the Caged Bird Sings” in 1969,  a very important and successful novel that marked a landmark moment in literature.

14. She once had a heart-to-heart discussion with Tupac that prompted his mother Afeni Shakur to write Angelou a thank you note.

Director John Singleton invited Angelou to be a part of his iconic 1993 film “Poetic Justice” featuring rapper Tupac Shakur and singer Janet Jackson. Angelou, who made a cameo in the movie, talked about how she met Shakur for the first time on the set of the film for one day while he was in the midst of a cursing spree. Angelou, who had no idea who the rapper was at the time, took him on a walk and moved him to tears by telling him an empowering story about black people in America. “You’re the best we have, we need you desperately,” she told him. Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, later wrote a letter expressing her gratitude towards Angelou for teaching her son a valuable lesson.

15. She was the first black poet to present at a presidential inauguration.

President Bill Clinton invited Angelou to present at his 1993 inauguration where she became the first black person and the first female to ever speak on the inaugural stage. Angelou delivered an original and riveting poem titled “On The Pulse of Morning.”

16. Angelou aged gracefully, never giving up on or stopping her mission.

Angelou became more visibly challenged as she aged. She suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and was wheel-chair bound. But she never let that ruin her mission to teach, inspire and share her love. “She knew that if she didn’t continue to go, she would stop,” Cicely Tyson said in the film. “She had this incredible love for people.”


Maya Angelou Documentary ‘And Still I Rise’ Set To Air

The new documentary film, "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise," begins with her quote, "We must encounter defeats but we must not be defeated, but in fact it may be necessary to encounter defeats so that we'd know who the hell we are."

Indeed, Angelou, who was literally transported with a tag on her arm and no adult supervision at the age 3 to Stamps, Arkansas, did not allow life to defeat her. She was a teenage mother who survived rape at age 7, had three marriages, worked with Dr. King and Malcolm X, and wrote a poem for a presidential inauguration. Angelou thrived with a new voice in each decade.

"Phenomenal woman wasn't just something she wrote. It was who she was," former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says in the film.

Indeed. Though most may remember Angelou as a poet and author of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Kunta Kente's grandmother in Roots or reciting the poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, the film sheds light on other parts of her life that are not as well known.

"Most will be surprised to know that there was so much more to her than what they thought," says film co-director and co-producer Rita Coburn Whack, who spent five years working on the documentary.

For example, early in her career Angelou, tall and lean, was a dancer and singer, known as Ms. Calypso. She toured with the Broadway play "Porgy and Bess" and while in Paris met author James Baldwin, with whom she would become lifelong friends. She wrote and starred in a 10-episode PBS series and was also one of the first Black woman member of the Directors Guild of America.

"The challenge was to bring something new to the table for people who knew about the [1993] inauguration while educating a new generation," says Whack. "The real learning process was how to make it in such a way that was respectful of her time on Earth, the history of our generation and get new generations to be interested in her work."

Fewer know about Angelou's activism. After hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speak at the Riverside Church in New York, Angelou helped raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She then became the northern coordinator for SCLC.

In the film, her son Guy Johnson remembered a march Angelou led in New York protesting the shooting of an unarmed Black man.

"She had courage like few people had courage," Johnson told NBCBLK in an interview.

Johnson says his mother exposed him to "a world I would not have known without her."

For example, the film features footage of Angelou and Johnson living in Cairo, Egypt and then in Ghana, where Angelou worked at a university. It was during this time she met Malcolm X. She had planned to work with the charismatic activist when she returned to the United States but Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.

"She gave me an understanding of the quality of all human beings," says Johnson. "Ethnicities differentiate us but they do not make us either better or worse. They merely make us different and make more rich the wonderful fabric of being human."

Whack says Angelou was a "walking lesson in history and reconciliation."

The documentary includes comments from Lou Gossett Jr., Common, Alfre Woodard, Diahann Carroll, President Bill Clinton, Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Valerie Simpson of Ashford and Simpson, John Singleton, Dave Chappelle and Quincy Jones.

Her friend poet Nikki Giovanni describes Angelou as a "consummate performer." There's one particular part in the film that reveals Angelou's power to soothe the soul. She is describing her encounter with a popular young rapper who had become belligerent on the set of the 1993 movie "Poetic Justice" in which Angelou makes a cameo appearance. She grabbed him by the side and walked him down a small hill.

"I said young man come here," Angelou recalled during the speech. "When was the last time anyone told you how important you are? You're the best we have. We need you desperately. Do you know our people got on auction blocks for you? Got up at sunrise so that you could stay alive, you could be here today? I put my arm around his waist and I just walked him down the decline. Suddenly he started to cry."

It was Janet Jackson who told Angelou that the young man she was talking to was Tupac Shakur.

"I had no idea who he was," Angelou told the crowd.

Her grandson Colin Johnson understands the power his grandmother had to touch others. He says he was moved to tears for about 45 minutes after seeing the final version of the film.

"The impact she's had on so many people, to see her story done with such respect, such admiration and such reverence for who she was, is a proud moment," says Colin, who runs Caged Bird Legacy, LLC. "To see her lifted up like this, it's a big thing for us."

The movie ends with Angelou reciting her famous poem, "And Still I Rise."

Colin says his grandmother lived outside the box.

"She had a vision for what her life was suppose to look like, the direction for where her heart and her work was supposed to go like no other," says Colin, 41.

Angelou notes in the film that during the five years she didn't talk after being raped (from age 7 to 12), she read every book in the Black school library and all the ones she could get from the White school library. She memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes as well as Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe.

"When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say," Angelou noted.

Johnson says his mother's voice is particularly needed in today's climate.

"My mother would be the first tell you that we are more alike than we are unalike, but that doesn't mean that we aren't different," says Johnson. "We need to learn to appreciate our differences and not let them divide us."

Maya Angelou knew how a laugh could be a survival tool

Back in 1988, Maya Angelou described to a predominantly white crowd in Salado, Texas, how a maid’s smile inspired one of her most enduring poems. She says she wrote it to honor a maid she once watched ride the bus in New York City.

But it was the woman’s laugh that caught Angelou’s attention.

The unnamed woman, who was carrying two shopping bags, laughed whenever the bus stopped abruptly. She also laughed when it stopped slowly.

“I thought, hmmm, uh huh,” the poet told the crowd, verbalizing her internal thought process. Angelou, who was also an author, performer and activist, was a keen observer of the world around her.

“Now, if you don’t know black features, you may think she’s laughing, but she wasn’t laughing,” Angelou continued. “She was simply extending her lips and making a sound — ha, ha, ha, ha.”

“Oh, I see. That’s that survival apparatus,” she says.

The scene appears early on in the PBS documentary “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” airing tonight as part of the “American Masters” series. The poet, who died in 2014 at age 86 before the completion of this film, recounts many of her life’s memories in the documentary. In several moments, Angelou is seen upending someone’s worldview.

The reaction shots of the Texas audience, for example, are telling. People hang onto the cadence of her words. With this poem, Angelou invites them to empathize with the maid and Angelou’s recognition of the painful history that drives the motivation behind the woman’s laughs.

Angelou demonstrates by widening her lips like a rubber band, resistant to keeping up the facade. And the laugh — the ha-has — grows increasingly desperate every time Angelou, with tears pooling in her eyes, mimics the maid’s hollowed laughs in her poem:

“Seventy years in these folks’ world, The child I works for calls me ‘girl’.

I say, “Ha, ha, ha, yes, ma’am,” for workin’s sake, I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break.

So — ha, ha, ha, ha — I laugh until my stomach ache, when I think about myself.”

Rita Coburn Whack, who co-directed and co-produced the documentary, said she’s seen Angelou recite the poem several times over the years, often times intermingling it with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1892 poem, “Masks.” Angelou often alluded to those masks as a form of survival for black people in America in her work, Whack said.

“The mask was the two-facedness that black people had to have in the country to survive,” she told the NewsHour. “To grin and bear it, and then to bear the unbearable that this is who they were.”

The maid’s story, excerpted in the documentary, is also embedded in a larger poem of Angelou’s, titled “For Old Black Men.” The poem describes fathers who “nod like broken candles” and who “laugh to shield their crying.”

A year earlier, in another reciting of the poem, Angelou states it more plainly.

“Black Americans, for centuries, were obliged to laugh when they’re weren’t tickled and to scratch when they didn’t itch,” she said.

“I don’t think we often enough stop to wonder, ‘How did that black man feel?’ when his throat starts to ache … when you must cry, but you won’t,” she added.

The fact that this was not fair and there was nothing you could do about it was a common thread in Angelou’s work, Whack said. Recall the maid’s “too proud to bend and too poor to break” line.

“The poem struck her very deeply because it wasn’t just the observation of the maid, but it was all of her life,” Whack said.

The nearly two-hour documentary, airing tonight, is but a snapshot into a life and career that echoes moments from Angelou’s 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The film covers the poet’s treks to Africa, her performance as the White Queen in Jean Benet’s play “The Blacks,” and her work as a civil rights advocate, among other milestones.

Interview subjects in the film also described Angelou as a “consummate performer,” who sang and danced long before she penned autobiographies. Special mention must be made for her time as a calypso singer in the 1950s when she adorned vinyl LPs as “Miss Calypso.”

Most notable, perhaps, is when Angelou is heard speaking about growing up in the Jim Crow South in Stamps, Arkansas.

“I was terribly hurt in this town, and vastly loved,” Angelou says in the film of her hard-won time spent there as a child.

Her memories are punctuated with good times, too, often associated with her brother Bailey and her grandmother, who taught her to read. But Angelou also remembers how her grandmother, who owned the only black-owned store in Stamps, was disgraced when three white girls came to the store one day, stripped down nearly naked and showed themselves to her.

“The atmosphere was pressed down with old fears,” Angelou said of the town in the documentary.

Angelou was also raped — “I won’t say severely raped, all rape is severe,” Angelou once said — when she was nearly 8 years old, which she also discussed in “Caged Bird.” At the time, women, much less black women, didn’t talk openly about being raped.

The film also delves into Angelou’s later involvement with civil rights advocacy, including work done with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Guy Johnson, Angelou’s son, described how his mother stood her ground when police rode into a 1960 protest on horseback.

To deflate the police intimidation, she pulled out a huge hairpin and stuck it in a horse. The sergeant riding on top who fell off. Angelou believed that when you see things that are wrong, and don’t say something, nobody benefits, Whack said.

Johnson, 71, said a five-part series would be needed to document his mother’s “gigantic life.” She has known “times of sadness and total depression,” but she realized that wasn’t “constructive,” he added.

“If you want to do more than survive, if you want to thrive, you have to do so with grace, passion, compassion and joy,” Johnson told the NewsHour. And that meant speaking to the “common denominator of humanity,” he added.

Angelou’s works spoke empathetically, as with the maid. They spoke personally, with Angelou mining her own life experiences. And they spoke universally.

“She spoke from the black perspective because she knew that best, but she addressed to what was human in us all,” Johnson said. “And her message has to do with equality and justice for all human beings.”

Johnson said his mother demonstrated this during his son’s fifth grade graduation. Angelou walked around the class and Johnson remembered her saying, “Somewhere, there’s someone graduating fifth grade who’s going to find the cure to cancer, going to find the cure to poverty, who’s going to be able to take us to the stars.”

And then she turned around and said, “Why not you, young man? Why not you, young lady?”

Angelou believed that “within the human being, there’s the capacity to solve all of our difficulties. If we give the total mental capacity of the species, if we allowed that to be realized, we could resolve everything,” Johnson said.

Angelou communicated this when she wrote and publicly read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the first inauguration of former President Bill Clinton in 1993.

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