- Immersed herself in literature following a personal tragedy as a child and refused to speak for nearly six years.
- Was nicknamed Maya as a child by her older brother.
- Was San Francisco's first black female cable car conductor.
- As a teen she acquired a love for music and dance, and toured the world in a 1954 production of Porgy and Bess.
- Recorded her first album Calypso Lady in 1957.
- Joined the Harlem Writers Guild in 1958 and appeared Off-Broadway in The Blacks.
- Worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the 1960s.
- Published the best seller I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, the first of seven autobiographies.
- Wrote and delivered the poem "On the Pulse of Morning" for President Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural.
- Awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 2000.
- Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
- Spoke six languages.
- Was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees; taught American Studies at Wake Forest University.
- 1973, Tony — Actress, Supporting or Featured (Dramatic): Nominee
- 1995, Screen Actors Guild Awards — Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture: Nominee
- Bailey Johnson Sr. — Father
- Guy Johnson — Son
- Tosh Angelos — Ex-husband
- Vusumzi Make — Ex-husband
- Vivian Baxter — Mother
- Bailey Johnson Jr. — Brother
- Paul du Feu — Ex-husband
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