9 Things You Didn't Know About Maya Angelou

by Lulu Chang

On Wednesday morning, the world lost one of its greatest authors — Maya Angelou, who passed away at the age of 86 in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. An essayist, poet, and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou's talents were far-ranging and widely respected, and her fame far extended beyond the literary world. Angelou's artistry served the distinct purpose of criticizing social injustices, and her influence has seen her mainstay in two presidential committees, won her three Grammy's, and earned her 50 honorary degrees from universities around the country. More importantly, Angelou served as a voice and a remarkable influence to millions.

The sheer volume of work Angelou produced over the course of her 86 years makes her a legend, but many of her most interesting and impressive accomplishments remain unknown, overshadowed by such famous and widely-read works as I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and And I Still Rise. For many students, Angelou's work is required reading, and yet, we know relatively little of the incredible resume of an even more phenomenal woman. As we remember her life and celebrate her legacy, here are nine things about Maya Angelou that you might not have known.

1. She was San Francisco's first African-American female cable car conductor

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Angelou knew she was destined for the arts from a young age, and studied dance in drama in California at San Francisco's Labor School. It was here that she was first familiarized with progressivism and social justice issues that would inform much of her later work and activism. But at 14, she decided to leave the school, and instead, became the first black woman to operate cable cars in the city, all before she was 20.

2. She was mute for five years

In 1937, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Mr. Freeman. Following this incident, Angelou stopped speaking, and remained mute until 1942. Freeman was tried for the sexual abuse, but was later found beaten to death, likely by Angelou's uncles. Later, she explained her silence, “My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years.” This was the inspiration for Angelou's famed I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

3. She was featured on a stamp in Ghana

From 1960 to 1966, Angelou lived in Africa, first in Egypt, where she served as the editor of The Arab Observer, and later, in Ghana, where she taught music and dance at the University of Ghana. In addition to teaching, Angelou continued to write, and her works were featured in The African Review and The Ghanaian Times. Her influence in the African nation was so strong that it earned her a stamp.

4. She wrote the screenplay for Georgia, Georgia

Not only was her screenplay for Georgia, Georgia made into a movie in 1972, but she was also the first African-American woman to have an original screenplay produced as a film. The film explores racial tensions and is consistent with many themes commonly found in Angelou's work.

5. She spoke at least six languages

Due to her extensive travels, Angelou became well-versed in many languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti.

6. Nelson Mandela read her poem during his inauguration

Angelou was close friends with many civil rights giants, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. The South African president read her poem, And Still I Rise after winning the election in 1994. After his death, the U.S. State Department commissioned Angelou to write a poem in honor of the leader, entitled His Day Is Done.

7. She wrote for Hallmark

Imagine getting a card from Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou once held a contract with Hallmark, in which she wrote poems and short verses for greeting cards, pillowcases, and other various pieces of memorabilia.

8. She only traveled by bus

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Angelou did not enjoy flying, and gave it up in 1999. Instead, the poet made her way around the country by bus. But not just any old bus, a decked-out state-of-the-art tour bus fit for a rockstar. The vehicle doubled as a home for Angelou, and as such, it had to be functional, comfortable, and generally awesome. With gourmet meals, a shower, a bedroom, and even a living room, Angelou knew how to travel in style.

9. She was very tall

Angelou was an enormous presence in every sense of the world, and has left an incomparable legacy. By the time she was 14, she was six feet tall, and she continued to tower over the world for the next seven decades. Her imposing stature combined with her incredible intellect made her an intimidating force to be reckoned with.