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.”

25 Famous Authors' Favorite Books

David Cheskin-Pool/Getty Images
David Cheskin-Pool/Getty Images

One key to being a good writer is to always keep reading—and that doesn't stop after you've been published. Here are 25 authors' favorite reads. Who knows, one of these books might become your new favorite.

1. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

American writer Ernest Hemingway
Central Press/Getty Images

Papa Hemingway once said "there is no friend as loyal as a book," and in a 1935 piece published in Esquire, he laid out a list of a few friends he said he would "rather read again for the first time ... than have an assured income of a million dollars a year." They included, he wrote, "Anna Karenina, Far Away and Long Ago, Buddenbrooks, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, A Sportsman's Sketches, The Brothers Karamazov, Hail and Farewell, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Winesburg, Ohio, La Reine Margot, The Maison Tellier, Le Rouge et le Noir, La Chartreuse de Parme, Dubliners, Yeats's Autobiographies, and a few others."

It wasn't the first reading list he'd made; just a year earlier, Hemingway had dashed off a list of 14 books for an aspiring writer who had hitchhiked to Florida to meet him. It included a few of the same books above, plus two short stories by Stephen Crane.

2. JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion
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In an interview with The Paris Review in 2006, novelist and creative nonfiction scribe Joan Didion called Joseph Conrad's Victory "maybe my favorite book in the world ... I have never started a novel ... without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing."

3. RAY BRADBURY

US science fiction writer Ray Bradbury
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Sci-fi author Ray Bradbury's favorite books, which he discussed during a 2003 interview with Barnes & Noble when he was 83, are somewhat unexpected. Among them, Bradbury said, were "The collected essays of George Bernard Shaw, which contain all of the intelligence of humanity during the last hundred years and perhaps more," books written by Loren Eisley, "who is our greatest poet/essayist of the last 40 years," and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: "Quite obviously its impact on my life has lasted for more than 50 years."

The books that most influenced his career—and are presumably favorites as well—were those in Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter: Warlord of Mars series. "[They] entered my life when I was 10 and caused me to go out on the lawns of summer, put up my hands, and ask for Mars to take me home," Bradbury said. "Within a short time I began to write and have continued that process ever since, all because of Mr. Burroughs."

4. GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

George R.R. Martin
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

It's probably not surprising that Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has said that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which he first read in junior high, is "still a book I admire vastly." But he recently found inspiration in a newer book, which he recommended in a Live Journal entry: "I won't soon forget Station Eleven," he wrote. Emily St. John Mandel's book about a group of actors in a recently post-apocalyptic society, he said, is "a deeply melancholy novel, but beautifully written, and wonderfully elegiac … a book that I will long remember, and return to."

5. AYN RAND

The Atlas statue in New York City seen from below
Sean P. Anderson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

"The very best I've ever read, my favorite thing in all world literature (and that includes all the heavy classics) is a novelette called Calumet K by Merwin-Webster," Rand wrote in 1945. The book was famous then, but if you haven't heard of it, allow Chicago magazine to outline the plot: "Calumet K is a quaint, endearingly Midwestern novel about the building of a grain elevator ... It's a procedural about large-scale agricultural production." If that sounds like something you'd want to check out, you can read it for free here.

6. GILLIAN FLYNN

Author Gillian Flynn
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn was asked about her favorite books in a 2014 Reddit AMA, she called out her "comfort food" books—the kind "you grab when you're feeling cranky and nothing sounds good to read"—which included Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

7. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov
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During an interview with a French television station in the 1950s, the Lolita author—who wrote all of his own books on note cards, which were "gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they [became his novels]," according to The Paris Review—shared a list of what he considered to be great literature: James Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Andrei Bely's Petersburg, and "the first half of Proust's fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time."

8. JANE AUSTEN

English novelist Jane Austen
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The author of classics like Pride and Prejudice and Emma was herself a voracious reader of books, poetry, and plays, including The Corsair by Lord Byron, Madame de Genlis's Olimpe and Theophile, and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. A clear favorite, though, was Samuel Richardson's book Sir Charles Grandison.

9. MARK TWAIN

Mark Twain
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

In 1887, Twain responded to a letter from Reverend Charles D. Crane, a pastor in Maine, which likely asked for Twain's recommendations for both young boys and girls as well as the authors' favorite books (Crane's letter, unfortunately, is lost). Among his favorites, Twain said, were Thomas Carlyle "(The French Revolution only)," Sir Thomas Malory's King Arthur, and Arabian Nights, among others. He also included his own B.B., which he said was "a book which I wrote some years ago, not for publication but just for my own private reading."

10. MEG WOLITZER

Meg Wolitzer
Rich Polk/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment

The Interestings author loves the novel Old Filth by Jane Gardam. "It's a thrilling, bold and witty book by a British writer whom I discovered rather late," she told Elle in 2014. "I can't say I've read anything else like Old Filth, which stands out for me as a singular, opalescent novel, a thing of beauty that gives immense gratification to its lucky readers."

11. ERIK LARSON

Author Erik Larson
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

The acclaimed author of The Devil in the White City calls The Maltese Falcon his "all-time personal favorite":

"I love this book, all of it: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, much of which was lifted verbatim by John Huston for his screenplay for the beloved movie of the same name. The single best monologue in fiction appears toward the end, when Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy why he's giving her to the police."

12. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

A studio portrait of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1936—four years before his death—Fitzgerald was living at the Grove Park Inn in North Carolina. After he fired a gun as a suicide threat, the inn insisted that he be supervised by a nurse. While under Dorothy Richardson's care, he provided her with a list of 22 books that he deemed "essential reading." It included Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

13. EDWIDGE DANTICAT

Award winning writer Edwidge Danticat visits Capitol Hill, October 21, 2015.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This MacArthur Fellow and award-winning author of Claire of the Sea Light, The Dew Breaker, and Brother, I'm Dying told Time.com that her favorite summer read is Love, Anger, Madness, by the Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet. "I have read and reread that book, both in French and in its English translation, for many years now," she said. "And each time I stumble into something new and eye-opening that makes me want to keep reading it over and over again."

14. SAMUEL BECKETT

Irish playwright and author Samuel Beckett
Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images

Winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature and author of Waiting for Godot, Beckett was always a private individual, even after garnering acclaim for his writing. In 2011, a volume of the author's letters from 1941 to 1956 was published, giving the world a glimpse into his friendships and reading habits. Beckett wrote about many books in his correspondence: He described Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne as "lively stuff," wrote that his fourth reading of Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane caused "the same old tears in the same old places," and that he liked The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger "more than anything for a long time."

15. R.L. STINE

R.L. Stine
Andy Kropa/Getty Images

In a 2012 piece for The Washington Post, Goosebumps and Fear Street author R.L. Stine praised Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, calling it "one of the most underrated books ever. Bradbury's lyrical depiction of growing up in the Midwest in a long-ago time, a time that probably never even existed, is the kind of beautiful nostalgia few authors have achieved."

16. AMY TAN

Author Amy Tan
Will Ragozzino/Getty Images

The Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan's favorite piece of classic Chinese literature is Jing Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), penned by an anonymous scribe. "I would describe it as a book of manners for the debauched," she said in a 2013 interview with The New York Times. "Its readers in the late Ming period likely hid it under their bedcovers, because it was banned as pornographic. It has a fairly modern, naturalistic style—'Show, don't tell'—and there are a lot of sex scenes shown. For years, I didn't know I had the expurgated edition that provided only elliptical hints of what went on between falling into bed and waking up refreshed. The unexpurgated edition is instructional."

17. J.K. ROWLING

Author J.K. Rowling
John Phillips/Getty Images

For her favorite book, Harry Potter and The Silkworm author J.K. Rowling (she wrote the latter under a pseudonym) went with a classic: Jane Austen's Emma. "Virginia Woolf said of Austen, 'For a great writer, she was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,' which is a fantastic line," Rowling said, according to Oprah.com. "You're drawn into the story, and you come out the other end, and you know you've seen something great in action. But you can't see the pyrotechnics; there's nothing flashy."

One of her favorite books as a child was The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit, whom Rowling called "the children's writer with whom I most identify … The Story of the Treasure Seekers was a breakthrough children's book. Oswald is such a very real narrator, at a time when most people were writing morality plays for children."

18. MAYA ANGELOU

Maya Angelou
Steve Exum/Getty Images

The poet and author had a number of favorite books, including Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, the Bible, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. "When I read Alcott, I knew that these girls she was talking about were all white," Angelou told The Week in 2013. "But they were nice girls and I understood them. I felt like I was almost there with them in their living room and their kitchen."

19. LYDIA DAVIS

US author Lydia Davis
Will Oliver/AFP/Getty Images

Reading John Dos Passos's Orient Express was "a turning point for me," award winning novelist Lydia Davis said in 1997. "That was one of the first 'grown up' books that made me excited about the language."

20. HENRY MILLER

HENRY MILLER
Central Press/Getty Images

The Tropic of Cancer author wrote an entire book that, he explained in the preface, "[dealt] with books as a vital experience." The Books in My Life included an appendix titled "100 Books Which Influenced Me Most." Classics like Wuthering Heights, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Les Miserables, and Leaves of Grass all made the cut.

21. JOHN STEINBECK

US novelist John Steinbeck
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden author's favorite books later in life was Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, but his first favorite book was Le Morte d'Arthur, a collection of Arthurian tales by Sir Thomas Malory, which Steinbeck received as a gift when he was 9. It was a major influence on the author's writing, and ultimately led to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which Steinbeck hoped would be "the best work of my life and the most satisfying." He had completed just seven chapters of the book when he died in 1968; it was published posthumously eight years later.

22. CHERYL STRAYED

Wild author Cheryl Strayed
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for American Lung Association

When the author of the bestselling memoir Wild set off on her journey up the Pacific Coast Trail, she only had room to take two books. One was a book of Adrienne Rich's poetry, The Dream of a Common Language. She had already read it enough times to almost memorize it in its entirety. Explaining in Wild the choice to bring along the extra weight in her pack, she writes:

"In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I'd chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn't regret carrying it one iota—even though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion."

At one point during her arduous hike, she considers burning the book to save weight in her pack, as she did with other books she read along the trail. "There was no reason not to burn this book too," she writes. "Instead, I only hugged it to my chest."

23. JOYCE CAROL OATES

Author Joyce Carol Oates speaks onstage
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center

In a 2013 interview with The Boston Globe, the prolific author Joyce Carol Oates revealed Dostoevsky as one of her favorite authors. When asked for her all-time favorite book, she said:

"I would say Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which had an enormous effect on me. I think young people today might not realize how readable that novel is. The other book that I worry no one reads anymore is James Joyce's Ulysses. It's not easy, but every page is wonderful and repays the effort."

In honor of the publication of her latest book, Dis Mem Ber in June 2017, Oates also shared her current reading list with The Week. It included Anthony Marra's books A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno, Atticus Lish's award-winning Preparation for the Next Life, Whitney Terrell's Iraq War novel The Good Lieutenant, T. Geronimo Johnson's satirical Welcome to Braggsville, and the time-travel sci-fi novel Version Control by Dexter Palmer.

24. GEORGE SAUNDERS

George Saunders speaks at The 2009 New Yorker Festival
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The New Yorker

In 2014, Saunders—one of the most famous short story writers of our time—detailed some of his favorite books for Oprah Winfrey's O magazine. On the favorites list for the author of bestsellers like Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Tobias Wolff's In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (a book that convinced Saunders to study with Wolff at Syracuse University, where Saunders still works today), Michael Herr's Vietnam memoir Dispatches, Stuart Dybek's short story collection The Coast of Chicago, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and several classics of Russian literature—Isaac Babel's The Red Calvary, The Portable Chekhov, and Nicolai Gogol's Dead Souls.

25. JUDY BLUME

Author/activist Judy Blume
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

In 2016, beloved author Judy Bloom shared some of her favorite books with The Strand, a bookstore in New York City. Madeline, the classic children's book by Ludwig Bemelmans, she explained, was "the first book I fell in love with at the Elizabeth [New Jersey] public library." She wrote:

"I loved it so much I hid it so my mother would not be able to return it to the library. I thought it was the only copy in the world. To this day I feel guilty. It was the first book I bought for my daughter's library when she was born."

For professional inspiration, she turns to Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral. "It never fails to amaze me," she writes.

This article first ran in 2015.

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Library of Congress Has Digitized 100 Rare and Classic Children’s Books

iStock.com/ra2studio
iStock.com/ra2studio

One hundred rare and vintage children’s books can now be read online for free via the Library of Congress’s website, according to The New York Times. The titles, all of which were published at least a century ago, were digitized in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first national Children’s Book Week.

“Some of these books are hundreds of years old and no child will ever see them except through a glass case, so it is a way to get these books into the hands of children,” Jacqueline Coleburn, the library’s rare book cataloger, told the newspaper.

There are plenty of recognizable titles, including early versions of Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose in Prose, Grimm’s Animal Stories, Red Riding Hood, The Secret Garden, Stories from Hans Andersen, The Story of the Three Little Pigs, and more. All of the books can be viewed as downloadable PDFs or in a text-only format.

The oldest one in the digital collection is A Little Pretty Pocket Book, which was imported from Britain and printed in the U.S. in 1787. According to the British Library, the book is “generally considered to be the first book specifically directed at children.” Of course, it was a product of its time, and the gender roles represented therein will likely seem outdated by today’s standards. The book came with a free ball for boys and a pin cushion for girls to demonstrate that these objects would help make the characters—Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly—a “good boy” and a “good girl.”

Other books in the collection are exceedingly rare. One book from 1824, titled The Juvenile National Calendar, or, A Familiar Description of the U.S. Government, is one of just three copies in the world. In poem format, the book describes the different roles of state leaders. Of the president, the book states:

"He, Ambassadors sends to the Nations afar;
He is chief of the soldiers who fight in the war;
He may pardon the convict, of hanging in fear;
And he gets Twenty five thousand dollars a year."

[h/t The New York Times]

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