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.”

8 Tips For Overcoming 'Reader's Block'

iStock.com/deyangeorgiev
iStock.com/deyangeorgiev

We’ve all been there. Your eyes glaze over, and you can’t get past the first paragraph on the page. Or perhaps you can’t will yourself to pick up a book in the first place. “Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable, but it might require a little creativity and effort on your part. Read on to hear tips from longtime readers who have been through it—and managed to come out on the other side of a good book.

1. START EASY.

If your reading skills are a little rusty, it’s probably best not to start with War and Peace—or any of the classics, for that matter. Sometimes people fall into the trap of being overly ambitious and choosing one of the literary “greats” without stopping to question whether they actually want to read it. “This is the problem with readers: we aim too high,” Stuart Jeffries wrote in The Guardian. “Ultimately, reader's block is caused by the great is-ought dilemma. You know you should, but you probably won't.” Instead of setting yourself up for failure, start off with something short and easy to digest. Once you get back into the swing of things, you can graduate to more challenging books.

2. TRY A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES ...

Compared to a 300-page novel, short stories won’t seem like such an insurmountable task. Ginni Chen, Barnes and Noble’s “Literary Lady,” suggests trying a collection of stories written by different authors. That way, you’ll have the chance to figure out which styles and subjects you enjoy most. In an advice column addressed to someone with reader’s block, Chen recommended the Best American Short Stories and the Best American Nonrequired Reading collection. And if you want to start really small, there’s an app called Serial Box that will send you 150-character stories as push notifications.

3. … OR A DIFFERENT GENRE.

Sometimes, it helps to change up your routine and read something outside of your comfort zone or usual go-to. It worked for Bustle writer Charlotte Ahlin, who wrote, “I once read about four Vonneguts in a row and then spent a week feeling crushing despair over the human condition. Your mind needs a varied diet of books to stay sharp.” In a blog for the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville, North Carolina, book lover Michele Coleman offered similar testimony. “For me during my last slump or block, I found browsing the non-fiction eased my mind,” she wrote. Do you enjoy mystery? She suggests switching it up and reading a humorous book. Is romance your thing? Give historical fiction a shot instead.

4. READ PAGE 69 BEFORE COMMITTING TO A BOOK.

This unusual tip comes from John Sutherland, an English professor and the author of How to Read a Novel. As Jeffries of The Guardian puts it, “Once you have read page 69, you will have an idea of whether the book is up your street. (Why he didn't say page 56 is anybody's guess.)” If that snippet doesn’t appeal to you, put it back on the shelf. Otherwise you might get stuck reading something that isn’t suited to your tastes, which can make your reader’s block even worse.

5. DON’T FEEL OBLIGATED TO FINISH A BOOK IF YOU’RE NOT ENJOYING IT.

Reading is supposed to be enjoyable—not a chore. If you find yourself filled with dread any time you pick up the book you’re currently reading, you may want to rethink your choice of material. If you feel guilty about abandoning a book, just use this quote from philosopher Francis Bacon as an excuse: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Interestingly, Goodreads compiles a list of the most popular abandoned books based on its user data, so you’ll be in good company if Infinite Jest goes infinitely unfinished.

6. LISTEN TO AN AUDIOBOOK.

Many traditionalists are of the opinion that audiobooks don’t really count as “reading,” but some researchers would disagree. One 2016 study found no difference in reading comprehension between those who had listened to an audiobook and those who had used an e-reader. It may seem counterintuitive, but audiobooks can also help beat reader's block, according to Jonathan Douglas, director of the UK's National Literacy Trust. This is because they can help reignite your passion for learning and consuming stories at a time when you’re having difficulty reading. Try listening to the audiobook while you drive to work, clean your house, or work out. You’ll feel extra accomplished for having done two productive things at once, and it may provide the momentum you need to get back into reading.

7. DISCONNECT FROM TECHNOLOGY.

In an article for Arré, writer Karan Mujoo said he’s been an avid reader since childhood. Yet he still occasionally struggles with reader’s block, and finds himself abandoning book after book when they fail to capture his interest. In his case, the availability of quick entertainment via streaming platforms like Netflix is simply too difficult to resist. “Unlike books, which require imagination and effort on the part of the reader, these shows serve you everything on a platter,” he writes. “Why then, should we expend our energies in reading, imagining, and creating a world when it has already been done for us?” Faced with a similar predicament, writer Hugh McGuire explained that his inability to focus on books was due to a “digital dopamine addiction” that stemmed from his consumption of television and online articles. With a few adjustments, though, he was able to get back into a regular reading habit. He suggests removing smartphones and computers from your bedroom, refraining from watching TV after dinner, and reading a book each night before bed. “I am reading books now more than I have in years,” he writes.

8. REREAD AN OLD FAVORITE.

When all else fails, “Literary Lady” Chen recommends paying a visit to an old friend. Your favorite books are memorable for a reason, and sometimes rereading a beloved book for the third time is all it takes to lift the reader’s block curse. You may also want to investigate options that are similar to your favorite authors and books. Book Browse is a good resource for finding “read-alikes” that might suit your tastes, and Literature Map will give you a visual overview of authors you may enjoy.

Dutton's New Young Adult Books Are the Size of a Smartphone—and They're Horizontal

Sometimes, the desire to read takes a backseat to how cumbersome it can be to carry a hardback book around all day, but a new line of pocket-sized volumes will ensure that’s never a problem. Dutton Books for Young Readers, a Penguin Random House imprint, has released a new line of books that are only a fraction of the size of the traditional hardback, as The New York Times reports.

The new design takes inspiration from the popular Dutch books known as dwarsliggers. In contrast to nearly every other book on the market, the text of these minute volumes is oriented horizontally, creating a flipbook effect. (The term comes from the Dutch words dwars—meaning crossways—and liggen—to lie.) The Dutton books are about the size of a smartphone, with extra-thin pages that make each volume only as thick as your finger. In other words, you'll only need one hand to read them.

A copy of the Penguin Mini version of 'Paper Towns' resting on two open copies of the book
Penguin Random House

The Penguin Minis are made by a Dutch printer, Royal Jongbloed, which is currently the only company in the world that makes books in this specific format. It uses ultra-thin paper sourced from just one Finnish mill.

The first books released in the new format are young adult novels by none other than Mental Floss friend John Green, host of our YouTube series Scatterbrained. You can buy the tiny versions of The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska at major retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores for $12 each. (There's also a boxed set of all four books on Amazon for $27.)

A boxed set of John Green novels released as Penguin Minis
Penguin Random House

Dutton is printing 500,000 copies for the first run, and if the compact novels prove popular over the holidays, there will be more volumes on their way in the future.

[h/t The New York Times]

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