10 Inspiring Facts About Maya Angelou

Scott Eells, Getty Images
Scott Eells, Getty Images

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Dr. Maya Angelou was never named an official United States Poet Laureate, but few have reached her level of cultural significance. Her verses are at the very heart of the American experience.

Yet she didn’t start out as a poet. She began her artistic career as a dancer, performing in San Francisco and training in New York City. But that was just the tip of the iceberg for a woman who lived an incredible, adventurous life that defied a humble childhood.

Here are 10 facts about Maya Angelou, who would have turned 90 years old today.

1. SHE WAS THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO CONDUCT A CABLE CAR IN SAN FRANCISCO.

As a teenager, Maya Angelou earned a scholarship to study dance and drama at the California Labor School, but she briefly dropped out when she was 16 to become a cable car conductor in San Francisco. “I saw women on the street cars with their little changer belts,” she told Oprah Winfrey, explaining why she wanted the job. “They had caps with bibs on them and form-fitting jackets. I loved their uniforms. I said that is the job I want.” She got it, and became the first black woman to hold the position.

2. PORGY AND BESS TOOK HER TO EUROPE.

Writer Maya Angelou attends the memorial celebration for Odetta at Riverside Church on February 24, 2009 in New York City.
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

After actors spotted her singing in a nightclub and asked if she could dance, Angelou got her foot in the door to join a touring company for Porgy and Bess. She turned down a lead role in a Broadway production of House of Flowers to join the company because it gave her the opportunity to travel throughout Europe. "The producers of House of Flowers asked me, 'Are you crazy? You're going to take a minimal role in a play going on the road when we're offering you a principal role for a Broadway play?,'" Angelou recalled to NPR. "I said, I'm going to Europe. I'm going to get a chance to see places I ordinarily would never see, I only dreamed of in the little village in Arkansas in which I grew up. Oh, no, I'm going with Porgy and Bess." She said it was the one of the best decisions she ever made.

3. SHE SPOKE SIX LANGUAGES.

Angelou's time in Europe also gave her the chance to hear other languages, and she paid very close attention. Ultimately, she learned to speak French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, and Fante (a dialect of Akan native to Ghana).

4. SHE DIDN’T SPEAK FOR FIVE YEARS IN HER YOUTH.

When she was just a child, Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother about the incident, and was later called to testify against the man in court, which led to his conviction. Ultimately, he served just one day in jail. Four days after his release, he was murdered—presumably by one of Angelou's family members—and Angelou blamed herself for his death.

“I thought, my voice killed him,” she later wrote of her attacker. “I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone." For the next five years, Angelou refused to speak. Literature helped her find her voice again.

5. SHE EDITED THE ARAB OBSERVER.

The Arab Observer was one of very few English-language news outlets in the Middle East during its publication from 1960 to 1966. While traveling in Egypt, Angelou met and married civil rights activist Vusumzi Make, and, after moving to Cairo, she scored a job as an editor for the Observer after W.E.B. Du Bois’s stepson David fudged her credentials. She’d never worked as a journalist before, but her job at the Observer tossed her into the deep end of reporting while working in an office full of men who’d never worked with a woman before.

"Du Bois said I was an experienced journalist, wife of a freedom fighter, and an expert administrator," Angelou said. "Would I be interested in the job of associate editor? If so I should realize that since I was neither Egyptian, Arabic, nor Moslem and since I would be the only woman working in the office, things would not be easy. He mentioned a salary that sounded like pots of gold to my ears."

6. SHE WROTE AND DIRECTED SEVERAL MOVIES.

By the end of her career, there were very few art forms Angelou hadn’t participated in (which is how she wound up with both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize nomination and three Grammy wins), but it’s still delightfully surprising to know that Angelou was also a filmmaker. She first acted and sang in 1957’s Calypso Heat Wave but eventually turned to screenwriting for 1972’s Georgia, Georgia (a romance about an African American singer who falls in love while performing in Stockholm), and then to directing with 1998’s Down in the Delta starring Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes.

7. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. WAS ASSASSINATED ON HER BIRTHDAY.

Angelou was friends with James Baldwin and had planned to help Malcolm X build the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a new civil rights organization, shortly before his assassination. She was also a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and organized with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In early 1968, Dr. King asked Angelou to tour the country to promote the SCLC, but she postponed in order to plan her birthday party. It was on her 40th birthday, April 4, 1968, that Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. His death sent her into a deep depression.

8. SHE WAS ONLY THE SECOND POET IN HISTORY TO RECITE WORK AT A PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION.

US President Bill Clinton(R) congratulates poet/writer Maya Angelou(L) after presnting her with the National Medal of Arts during ceremonies 20 December, 2000 at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC
STEPHEN JAFFE, AFP/Getty Images

When President John F. Kennedy took the oath of office in 1961, the legendary Robert Frost became the first poet to participate in the inauguration ceremony. Lending her voice to President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Angelou was the first poet since Frost to enjoy the honor of the august platform, reading the centuries-spanning epic “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she wrote for the occasion. Her recitation scored her a 1994 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.

9. SHE WAS AN AVID CHEF, AND WROTE TWO COOKBOOKS.

Is there anything Angelou couldn’t do? She used Hallelujah! The Welcome Table to explore recipes that held personal meaning for her, and with Great Food, All Day Long, she shared an abiding love of preparing meals for others while focusing on healthy courses. “If this book finds its way into the hands of bold, adventurous people, courageous enough to actually get into the kitchen and rattle pots and pans, I will be very happy,” Angelou wrote in the introduction to the latter title.

10. SHE HAD HER OWN LINE OF HALLMARK GREETING CARDS.

In 2000, at the age of 72, Angelou penned a series of two-sentence sentiments for the iconic greeting card company that adorned cards and serving dishes. Fully aware she’d face criticism for diminishing her stature with a commercial venture (including from her own publisher at Random House), she responded by saying, “If I’m America’s poet, or one of them, then I want to be in people’s hands. All people’s hands. People who would never buy a book.”

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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