At once a novelist, actress, poet, singer, and humanitarian (and one of the most renowned figures in each of the said roles), Maya Angelou spent the majority of her life crusading for egalitarianism, human rights, and spiritual healing in the African American community. A child of the Great Depression and a victim of extreme racial discrimination and abject poverty from early childhood, Angelou came of age in the racially segregated American south, experiences ultimately chronicled in the 1970 memoir that made her a literary giant, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She survived a host of personal trials, including childhood rape, a period of uncertainty regarding her own sexual orientation, and single parenthood -- in addition to a period that witnessed her working as a prostitute -- but eventually learned to support herself and her son as a calypso dancer. By the 1960s, Angelou extended herself into acting roles, began publishing poetry and plays, and spent periods of time at home and abroad in a succession of relationships with men. Most significantly, she plunged into the Civil Rights movement opposite Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, and received a personal appointment by King to head up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
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The literary triumph of Caged Bird is well-known; championed by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and others, it became a massive bestseller and a staple of college classrooms everywhere, and also helped carry the torch of the civil rights movement. In successive decades, Angelou began publishing a series of sequels; she also moved into film work as a screenwriter and occasional actress, peaking in on-camera activity during the 1990s. Assignments included parts in John Singleton's urban drama Poetic Justice (1993), Jocelyn Moorhouse's female ensemble drama How to Make an American Quilt (1995), and the urban seriocomedy Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion (2006). Angelou also hosted the PBS series Maya Angelou's America: A Journey of the Heart in the early '90s, and appeared in everything from Sesame Street videos to documentaries on Christianity. She achieved her greatest recognition, however, and made history in the process, when President Bill Clinton asked her to deliver an original poem at his 1992 inauguration. Her appointment to U.S. poet laureate made her the first American to wear that title in 30 years, and the first African American female poet laureate in U.S. history. In 1998, Angelou debuted as a director with the gentle ensemble drama Down in the Delta. She continued to make public appearances until shortly before her death in 2014, at age 86. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi