Maya Angelou (1928-2014) never intended to write an autobiography. In 1968 she was active in the civil rights movement and had a busy and successful career as a poet, playwright, performer, and educator. A recent project– writing, producing, and hosting the PBS series Blacks, Blues, Black– had brought her to California, where she met Jules and Judy Feiffer. The Feiffers, immediately taken with Angelou’s fascinating history and storytelling flair, contacted Random House editor Robert Loomis. With help from James Baldwin, Loomis persuaded the initially reluctant Angelou to write a memoir. The result was Angelou’s most widely read book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Published in 1969, the book chronicles Angelou’s life from the age of three, when she and her brother Bailey were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.
The book ends with Maya becoming a mother at age 16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is dedicated to her son, Guy Johnson.
The book was a critical and popular success, and it brought Angelou to the attention of national media as an important new voice in American literature.
Angelou eventually wrote five more autobiographical works.
She also continued to write poetry, dramatic works, and screenplays. In 1978 Angelou worked on an adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the CBS television movie version of her memoir.
In 1982 Maya Angelou accepted the position of Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. A beloved and influential presence on the Wake Forest campus, Angelou made numerous appearances in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library. The Rare Books Collection holds a comprehensive collection of her works. And in 2001 Angelou donated to the library an extensive collection of manuscript materials relating to her career in the performing arts. The Maya Angelou Film and Theater Collection now resides in ZSR’s Special Collections and Archives. Materials relating to Angelou’s literary career are housed at the Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has never been out of print since its first publication nearly 50 years ago. The book has inspired countless readers with its story of resilience in the face of adversity. Angelou herself, in a 1990 interview with George Plimpton, commented that
There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That sounds goody-two-shoes, I know, but I believe that a diamond is the result of extreme pressure and time. Less time is crystal. Less than that is coal. Less than that is fossilized leaves. Less than that it’s just plain dirt. In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats—maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats—but we are much stronger than we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be.
Maya Angelou touched many lives and played many roles during her 86 years. But her first love was language, and her literary works, Caged Bird foremost among them, are the durable gemstones that will be her legacy for future generations.