How Well Do You Know Maya Angelou?

From calypso to civil rights to a love of sherry, the renowned writer led a multilayered and dynamic life.

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Maya Angelou 

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Poet and author Maya Angelou, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 86, was best-known for her writing. But she lived many lives. From her stint as a calypso dancer to her civil rights activism, she had adventures, interests and other life experiences that transcended the world of words. Her biggest fans already know these 11 details of her life, and the rest of us can use them as a starting point to begin to paint a fuller picture of her rich, multilayered time on this earth.

1. Ever-Changing Names

Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson. Her brother Bailey nicknamed her “Maya.” When she began her career as a nightclub calypso singer and dancer in San Francisco, she dropped “Marguerite” and took on the stage name Maya Angelou.

2. A High School Education With a Cable Car Break

Angelou dropped out of high school. At the age of 16, she became the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco. She did give high school another try, however, and graduated a few weeks before giving birth to her son, Guy.

3. Civil Rights Leadership and a Friendship With Malcolm X

Angelou was active in the civil rights movement. She became the Northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization central to Martin Luther King Jr.’s success. She also worked with Malcolm X. After meeting him in Ghana, she planned to return to the U.S. to help him develop his new Organization of Afro-American Unity. Unfortunately, Malcolm X was assassinated not long after they started working together.

4. Appearances on Everyone’s Favorite Kids’ Show

Angelou was a guest star on Sesame Street many times in the 1990s. Watch a video of her 1999 appearance:

5. Writing and Sipping 

Angelou was known to drink sherry while she wrote.

6. A Half-Decade of Silence

At the age of 7, Angelou stopped speaking for five years after she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. During that time, she began writing. She later wrote the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which details the first 17 years of her life.

7. Poets: They’re Just Like Us (When It Comes to TV, at Least)

Angelou was an avid Law & Order fan.

8. Comfortable-Footwear Fan

Angelou loved to wear Uggs.

9. Love Notes (of the Commercial Variety)

Angelou wrote Hallmark greetings and defended her decision to her Random House editor, who remarked that her work with Hallmark was too commercial.  

10. Diverse Taste in Tunes

Angelou was a lover of country music. Her favorites included Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton and Jennifer Nettles.

11. Camaraderie With Another Legend

Angelou was friends with Nelson Mandela. The two met in Cairo in 1962, while Angelou was working as a journalist. When Mandela passed away in 2013, Angelou recited a poem in a video sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Also on The Root:

Diamond Sharp is an editorial fellow at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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