Affectionately referred to as Dr. Angelou, the professor never went to college. She has more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“I created myself,” she has said. “I have taught myself so much.”
Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially-segregated Stamps, Arkansas.
The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy that stunned her into silence for almost a decade. When she was 7, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He was later beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him.
“My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she said.
From the silence, a louder voice was born.
Her list of friends is as impressive as her illustrious career. Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey referred to her as “sister friend.” She counted Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she worked during the Civil Rights movement, among her friends. King was assassinated on her birthday.
Angelou spoke at least six languages, and worked as a newspaper editor in Egypt and Ghana. During that time, she wrote “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” launching the first in a series of autobiographical books.
“I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine … before she realizes she’s reading,” she said.
Angelou was also one of the first black women film directors. Her work on Broadway has been nominated for Tony Awards.
Before making it big, the 6-foot-tall wordsmith also worked as a cook and sang with a traveling road show. “Look where we’ve all come from … coming out of darkness, moving toward the light,” she has said. “It is a long journey, but a sweet one, bittersweet.”