Born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou spent most of her childhood in the rural, segregated environment of Stamps, Arkansas, raised by her maternal grandmother after the divorce of her parents. Emerging from a disturbing and oppressive childhood to become a prominent figure in contemporary American literature, Angelou's quest for self-identity and emotional fulfillment is recounted in several volumes of autobiography, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which chronicles the author's life up to age sixteen. As a black girl growing up in a world whose boundaries were set by whites, Angelou learned pride and self-confidence from her grandmother, but the author's self-image was shattered when she was raped at the age of eight by her mother's boyfriend. Angelou was so devastated by the attack that she refused to speak for approximately five years. She finally emerged from her self-imposed silence with the help of a schoolteacher who introduced her to the world's great literature. The author spent much of her troubled youth fleeing various family problems. She was homeless for a time, worked on and off as a prostitute, and held a variety of jobs in several places as a young adult, changing her name to Maya Angelou when she became a cabaret dancer in her early twenties. Eventually she became an actress, joining the European touring cast of Porgy and Bess, but concern for the welfare of her young son, born when Angelou was just sixteen, eventually brought her back to the United States.
By the time she was thirty, Angelou had made a commitment to becoming a writer. Inspired by her friendship with the distinguished social activist author John Killens, she moved to Brooklyn to be near him and to learn her craft. Through weekly meetings of the Harlem Writers' Guild she learned to treat her writing seriously. At the same time, Angelou made a commitment to promote black civil rights. The next four volumes of her autobiography—Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)—trace the author's psychological, spiritual, and political odyssey. Angelou recounts experiences such as encounters with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., her personal involvement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the United States and in Africa, her developing relationship with her son, and her knowledge of the hardships associated with the lower class of American society. In All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, Angelou describes her four-year stay in Ghana where she worked as a free-lance writer and editor.
Angelou's poetry, which is collected in such volumes as Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Die (1971) and And Still I Rise (1976), has also contributed to her reputation and is especially popular among young people. It is particularly noted for its use of short lyrics and jazzy rhythms. Angelou recently directed national attention to humanitarian concerns with her poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she recited at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.