Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St Louis, Missouri and nicknamed Maya by her older brother, at the age of three she and her brother were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Four years later her father brought her back home, only for her to be sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who soon afterwards was murdered, possibly by her uncles. This traumatic event rendered her semi-mute for several years and it was only after returning to her grandmother’s that she learned to speak again, thanks to the efforts of her grandmother and a family friend who also introduced her to English literature.
At the age of fourteen she moved back to her mother’s house, now in Oakland, California where she went to school for three years, also taking a job as a cable car operator. Soon after leaving school she have birth to a son, Guy, and for the next few years earned her living variously as a waitress, cook, dancer and sex worker. In 1951 she married A Greek electrician, ex-seaman and aspiring musician, Tosh Angelos, a marriage that ended three years later. She began a professional career as a singer and dancer and in 1954 secured a part in the musical Porgy and Bess, touring Europe with the company.
She lived in New York on her return where she joined the Harlem Writers’ Guild. She also met Martin Luther King and became a civil rights campaigner and fundraiser. In 1961 she met the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved to Cairo with him and her son where she worked as associate editor for the Arab Observer, an English Language paper. The relationship ended a year later and she and her son moved to Accra where she became an administrator at the University of Ghana and a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times.
She returned to the US in 1965 where she became a close friend of Malcolm X. Devastated by his assassination, she joined her brother in Hawaii and resumed her singing career there, returning to New York in 1967. In 1969 she wrote the first of several biographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which brought her international acclaim. In 1973 she married Paul du Feu, a British carpenter and builder. For the next few years she flourished as a writer in many disciplines, writing articles, essays, short stories, children’s books, TV scripts and poetry. She also produced and acted in plays and was a visiting professor at several colleges and universities.
After her divorce from Paul du Feu in 1981 she returned to the southern US, becoming Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was a prolific and successful poet, writing in the African/American oral tradition with the emphasis on individual responses to hardship, oppression, loss, discrimination and racism. Her celebrity was such that she was asked to recite her poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Cinton’s first inauguration in 1993. She received over 50 honorary degrees, the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her remarkable life ended at the age of 86 in 2014, since when she has become legendary as the black woman’s poet laureate.