Maya Angelou was one phenomenal woman.
Angelou rose to fame during a tumultuous time in America’s racial history and broke barriers for black women through her legendary contributions to art and culture. Now, a new documentary is airing on PBS on Tuesday titled “American Masters ― Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” takes an in-depth look at Angelou’s life and legacy and how she inspired millions around the world with her work.
Angelou was an actor, singer, playwright, poet, author, teacher, dancer and advocate, but Rita Colburn Whack, the co-director and co-producer of the film, says she hopes viewers see Angelou’s full humanity.
“[She was also] a human being with wants, desires, struggles and fears and…she [was] determined to overcome them,” Whack told The Huffington Post. “Maya Angelou was a woman who decided to overcome every obstacle set in front of her during a time when black girls and later black women were ignored, abused and dismissed,” she added.
The film, which is largely told from Angelou’s perspective through recordings taped before her May 2014 death, also includes commentary from some of her close friends and family members including her son Guy Johnson, actors Cicely Tyson and Alfre Woodard, Louis Gossett Jr. and politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton.
From her early days as a mute and timid pre-teen to her rise as a legendary storyteller, the documentary explores how Angelou lived a life that impressed and inspired many. However, the film, which goes into great detail about many aspects of Angelou’s life, also shares some interesting little-known facts about her from over the years. We’ve shared some of these facts below and encourage you to watch the film to learn more about Angelou’s iconic legacy:
1. One of the earliest memories she had was being sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas at the age of 3.
Maya’s father and mother sent her and her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas when Angelou was the tender age of three. In the film, Angelou recounts how they boarded the train to their grandmother’s house with no adult supervision and the resentment she felt towards her parents for sending them away.
2. Her grandmother ran the only black-owned store in the town and taught her to read.
Annie Henderson, who Angelou referred to as “Momma,” was the child of a former slave and the only black person in Stamps, Arkansas to own a general store at the time Angelou was sent to live with her. Henderson taught Angelou how to read and would often bring back books from the local white schools in town for Angelou and her brother to indulge in.
3. Her brother Bailey further encouraged her to read and absorb everything she could.
In the film, Angelou said that, growing up, her brother Bailey played a big role in encouraging her to read and learn. “Just learn everything, put it in your brain. You’re smarter than everybody around here, except me of course,” she recalled him telling her with laughter. “And he was right, he was smart. But he was also protective of me.”
4. Her family was terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan growing up.
Growing up black in Stamps, Arkansas amid the racial terror that swept the nation was painful and difficult, Angelou said in the film. She reflected on one fearful night in her childhood involving her Uncle Willie, who was crippled and had been accused by a white girl who claimed she attempted to touch him. In an effort to help keep him safe from the Ku Klux Klan, Angelou, who said the KKK rode on their horses past her grandmother’s store in search of her uncle, helped to hide him in the den of the store and bury him in a box beneath dozens of onions and potatoes.
5. Angelou was raped at the age of seven. She didn’t speak for five years after.
Angelou and her brother temporarily moved to St. Louis to live with their mother who was dating a man. Angelou said he was “intoxicated” with her mother and later raped Angelou when she was seven years-old. Police later found him killed and it had appeared he had been kicked to death. Angelou, who shared the name of her rapist to her brother, felt guilt and anguish from his death, so much so her “7-year-old logic told me that my voice had killed a man,” she says in the film. “So I stopped speaking for five years.”
Angelou was eventually sent back to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas where she said she spent her time reading every book in the black school library and all the books she could get from the white school library, memorizing the works of famous poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare and more.
6. Angelou was always truthful and honest ― even when it came to sex.
Angelou was a beautiful, towering teenager who had attracted the attention of a young boy who had expressed sexual interest in her. One day, Angelou, who said she had seen films about sex that spiked her curiosity, said she approached the young boy and the two had sex at a friend’s house. Although it was her first time having sexual intercourse, Angelou admitted that the experience had been underwhelming. “I asked him ‘Is that all there is?” she said in the film. “So I said, ‘Ok, bye.’ And a month later I found out I was pregnant.”
7. She has had two interracial marriages, both of which ended shortly after they began.
Maya Angelou met and wed Tosh Angelos in 1951. He was a Greek sailor who had shared a deep love for reading. This was a significant deal at the time considering the racial tensions that existed and the polarizing issues around interracial marriages. She said her mother had initially been disgusted with her for marrying a white man, and later fell for him, even expressing disappointment when the couple divorced less than five years later. She later wed Paul du Feu, a white writer, in 1973 but divorced less than a decade later.
8. She worked in nightclubs and quickly gained exposure for her singing and dancing. She soon became known as Ms. Calypso.
In the 1950s, Angelou worked in nightclubs and strip clubs in San Francisco. While she didn’t strip off her clothes, she did show off her fabulous dance moves and would sing Calypso songs whenever she went out. She was later invited to sing Calypso at local venues and became known as Ms. Calpyso, performing in venues at a time when stars like Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr. hit their peak.
9. Angelou was heartbroken after not landing a big role on Broadway.
In 1967, Angelou was considered to be actress Pearl Bailey’s understudy in the Broadway play “Hello Dolly.” It was a dream opportunity for Angelou and one that would allow her to better financially support her son. However, while the director and producer of the play both loved her, Angelou’s son claims in one heartbreaking part of the film that it was Bailey who said: “Oh no — I ain’t gonna have this big old ugly girl be my understudy.’” Later in life, Bailey received a Lifetime Achievement Award and dedicated the honor to Angelou.
10. She was invited to New York by Langston Hughes where she met other famous black writers.
Shortly after her rejection from Broadway, Angelou began writing and befriended famous black writers like Langston Hughes who persuaded her to move to New York to join the Harlem Writers Guild, which is now the oldest organization of African American writers. She soon met writer James Baldwin, and the two grew to be close friends who had much respect and love for each other.
11. She portrayed a white queen in a play alongside Cicely Tyson and Louis Gossett Jr.
In 1960, Angelou, alongside other popular black actors Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett Jr. and James Earl Jones, starred in a play titled “The Blacks,” which featured an all-black cast with half of the cast portraying white characters. The play was polarizing and offered various statements on the state of race. Angelou portrayed a white queen, a role that was “quite fascinating,” as Tyson describes in the film.”[The play] was a piece that shook everyone.”
12. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on her birthday.
Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, which marked Angelou’s 40th birthday. His death rocked Angelou so much so she said she fell into a brief stage of mutism again. After about five days, she said Baldwin knocked on her door and ordered her to go with him to their friend’s home, Jules and Judy Feiffer, to share company and conversation. That night, Angelou told so many great stories about her life, that Judy Feiffer called Robert Loomis, an editor at Random House, and insisted that she had a book in her of some kind.
13. She turned down the opportunity to write an autobiography several times.
Loomis had called Angelou several times and tried to implore her to write an autobiography, a request she declined for months. She said she had been more interesting in writing plays and poetry. “Finally he said, ‘Ms. Angelou, I won’t call you again because writing autobiography as literature is almost impossible,’” she recalled in the film. “I said, ‘Well, in that case, I’ll try.’” So, she started to write and soon published her first novel “I know why the Caged Bird Sings” in 1969, a very important and successful novel that marked a landmark moment in literature.
14. She once had a heart-to-heart discussion with Tupac that prompted his mother Afeni Shakur to write Angelou a thank you note.
Director John Singleton invited Angelou to be a part of his iconic 1993 film “Poetic Justice” featuring rapper Tupac Shakur and singer Janet Jackson. Angelou, who made a cameo in the movie, talked about how she met Shakur for the first time on the set of the film for one day while he was in the midst of a cursing spree. Angelou, who had no idea who the rapper was at the time, took him on a walk and moved him to tears by telling him an empowering story about black people in America. “You’re the best we have, we need you desperately,” she told him. Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, later wrote a letter expressing her gratitude towards Angelou for teaching her son a valuable lesson.
15. She was the first black poet to present at a presidential inauguration.
President Bill Clinton invited Angelou to present at his 1993 inauguration where she became the first black person and the first female to ever speak on the inaugural stage. Angelou delivered an original and riveting poem titled “On The Pulse of Morning.”
16. Angelou aged gracefully, never giving up on or stopping her mission.
Angelou became more visibly challenged as she aged. She suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and was wheel-chair bound. But she never let that ruin her mission to teach, inspire and share her love. “She knew that if she didn’t continue to go, she would stop,” Cicely Tyson said in the film. “She had this incredible love for people.”