Maya Angelou's Major Works and Contributions

by David Harris

Maya Angelou (1928- ) is an author and poet and one of the important African-American writers of the 20th century. Her best-known works include a six-volume autobiography, but she is also a well-regarded poet. Angelou was also politically active during the late '50s and '60s during the Civil Rights movement.

A Caged Bird

Although all of the volumes in Angelou's autobiographical series are well-regarded, the first one is the most highly acclaimed. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," published in 1969, chronicles the writer's first 17 years of life. The book is quite frank and touches upon racism, violence and sexual abuse. Angelou wrote her autobiography in a similar vein as fiction -- with dialogue and plot points -- a technique that may seem commonplace now, but was revolutionary at the time. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is regularly studied in schools as required reading but is often challenged because of its frank depictions of homosexuality, premarital sex, profanity and violence.


Angelou's collection of poems, "Yet Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie," was published in 1971 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize the following year. The volume collects 38 of Angelou's poems and was published following the success of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Many of the poems center around the experience of being black and female in the United States, from the time of slavery through Jim Crow up to rebelling in the 1960s. Other poems deal with the various stages of love, from the first spark to the pain of breaking up. The collection is broken into two parts: "Where Love is a Scream of Anguish" and "Just Before the World Ends." Her second book of poems, "Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well," followed in 1975.


The subsequent volumes of Angelou's autobiography appeared between 1974 and 2002, beginning with "Gather Together in My Name." These volumes cover her first pregnancy, her travels to Europe and Africa and her work with the Civil Rights Movement. Though well-reviewed, they are constantly compared to "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and never received the same level of respect or praise that went to the first volume.

Other Contributions

Angelou also worked in film and television while putting out her memoirs and poems. In 1972, she was the first African-American woman to have a screenplay produced in "Georgia, Georgia" and received an Emmy nomination for her role in the mini-series "Roots" in 1977. In 1979, she assisted in the adaptation of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" for a television movie. Angelou also read the inaugural poem, the first in decades, when President Bill Clinton was sworn into office.

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