As a very young girl, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend. This man was eventually murdered after spending only one day in jail after being convicted for his actions against young May. In response to this trauma, and believing that she killed her abuser by speaking his name. Angelou did not speak for five years. Angelou enjoyed little stability as a young woman and moved back and forth between the homes of her paternal grandmother and her biological mother several times before graduating from a manual labor training school.
During her early career, she was a dancer who studied a variety of styles including traditional African dances in New York. Given her talent an ambition, Angelou toured Europe as a dancer before returning to New York where she joined the Harlem Writing Guild. This group placed Angelou alongside some of the most notable black writers of the era such as John Henrik Clarke and Rosa Guy.
After hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak, Angelou began to use her skills in the organization that supported King's efforts, including the Cabaret for Freedom. She would later help Malcolm X create the Organization of Afro-American Unity. After both Malcolm X and King were assassinated, Angelou went through a period of great pain and suffered from depression. Angelou channeled this pain in her first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which had a profound effect upon readers and helped white middle-class Americans understand the perspective of impoverished people and people of color.
Angelou's diverse career included acting, directing, and writing several books of essays, children's books, and autobiographies. She worked on behalf of many campaigns for civil rights for many different groups through the 20th and 21st centuries. She also was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86.