Maya Angelou was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist best known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. Angelou received several honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009.
Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou had a difficult childhood. Her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother were sent to live with their father's mother in Stamps, Arkansas. As an African American, Angelou experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas. She also suffered at the hands of a family associate around the age of 7: During a visit with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend. As vengeance for the sexual assault, Angelou's uncles killed the boyfriend. So traumatized by the experience, Angelou stopped talking. She returned to Arkansas and spent years as a virtual mute.
During World War II, Angelou moved to San Francisco, California. There she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School. Also during this time, Angelou became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. In the mid-1950s, Angelou's career as a performer began to take off. She landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, later appearing in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and releasing her first album, Miss Calypso (1957). A member of the Harlem Writers Guild and a civil rights activist, Angelou organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also serving as the SCLC's northern coordinator. In 1961, Angelou appeared in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Blacks with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson. Angelou went on to earn a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play Look Away (1973) and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television miniseries Roots (1977), among other honors.