Maya Angelou was one of the most critically acclaimed voices of American literature — but there are still a few things you might not know about her.
1. She wrote six autobiographies
Most people consider themselves lucky if their lives are interesting enough to garner enough commercial interest for one book about their lives. Maya Angelou wrote six — and that’s not including profiles written by others. Taken as a series, read them in this order: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
2. She was once a jill-of-all-trades
Before becoming a successful writer and poet, Angelou tried on multiple occupations as a means to support her son as a single mother. These included fry cook, stripper, prostitute, streetcar conductor, nightclub performer, actress, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a journalist in Egypt and Ghana.
3. She didn’t speak for years after her rapist was murdered
A victim of child sexual abuse, Angelou was brave enough to tell what happened to her. When her rapist — her mother’s boyfriend — was jailed for only one day, others (thought to be her uncles) took justice into their own hands and murdered her attacker. She became mute for five years afterward, believing that her voice caused his death.
4. She was multilingual
The well-traveled writer studied the languages of each area of the world she visited, and, as a result, became proficient in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and West African Fanti.
5. She never went to college but has more degrees than anyone you know
After becoming a single mother at the age of 17, Angelou had to work rather than go to college. By the time of her death, however, Angelou had racked up more than 30 honorary degrees from colleges and universities all over the country.
6. She was a three-time Grammy winner
Despite her past as a cabaret singer — she even put out an album! — Angelou’s Grammy wins were not for music, but for spoken word. She won the awards for her Bill Clinton inaugural poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” and other poems “Phenomenal Woman” and the audiobook version of her autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
7. She was extremely political
Angelou was named the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s northern coordinator under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., after organizing the Cabaret for Freedom in 1960. She began pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism at this time as well.
8. She was Oprah’s longtime mentor
Many saw Angelou appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but what viewers may not have realized is that the pair’s relationship began as far back as the late ’70s. They met when Oprah was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland, long before her talk show made her into a cultural icon and household name.
9. She wrote her first book because she was told not to
After requesting an autobiography from Angelou several times and getting shut down, her editor decided to try reverse psychology and told her that writing it as literature was “almost impossible” and she shouldn’t even try it. “The truth is that he had talked to James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that, ‘If you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it,'” she told NPR in 2008. The result was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
10. She had a very precise writing ritual
If you picture a writer in a small dark room with a typewriter, that’s pretty much the opposite of how Angelou’s process worked. She would wake early in the morning and check into a hotel, where staff had been instructed to remove all of the artwork from the walls. Lying on the bed, she would write 10 to 12 pages a day by hand on a yellow legal pad with a bottle of sherry, a pack of cards to play solitaire, Roget’s Thesaurus and the Bible to keep her company. She would edit her work down to three or four pages in the evening and do it all over again the next day until she was finished.