What Does Maya Angelou Look Like

Maya Angelou was a prolific poet, author, and civil rights leader. Her activism ranged from supporting Black lives to advocating for women’s rights and was widely admired by many. She is often depicted as a graceful, wise woman, but what does she look like?

Invariably, Maya Angelou is portrayed as a tall and dignified woman. At 5 foot 6 inches, she was of average height, but her presence and poise made her appear larger than life. She was of mixed race heritage, allowing her eyes and skin to truly dazzle. Her eyes were bright and full of life, with a sparkle that no photograph can capture. Her skin was soft and creamy but also resilient and strong, much like her spirit.

Many photographs depict Maya Angelou wearing a signature big hat, which complemented her signature big hair. She typically wore her hair in a voluminous, close-cropped, natural look. With big curls that framed her face, she looked more like a regal queen than a poet.

Ancient Jamaican wisdom dictates that ‘true beauty without, comes from beauty within’, and this must have been true for Maya Angelou. Her inner beauty radiated magnificently, transforming her simple features into a true beauty. It surely wasn’t just her physical beauty that left people mesmerised.

Maya Angelou was also known for her dazzling smile and her melodic, soft voice. Her bold and brash attitude is something that can still be seen in many of her photographs. Her presence was often intimidating, but the warmth of her spirit kept those around her at ease.

Early life

Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Shortly after, she and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in rural Arkansas, often referred to as the ‘Black Belt’ of the South. From a very early age, Maya learned the importance of education and the power of the creative arts. She was particularly drawn to music, theatre, and literature.

Maya and her brother were placed in the care of her grandmother, Annie Henderson. The two were quickly embraced and fiercely protected by their grandmother and the community they called home. Here, Maya was exposed to a range of teachings from the famous Black southern tradition of folk and spirituals, to powerful lessons in courage and resilience. It was in this environment that Maya Angelou’s journey as an author began.

It was also in third grade when Maya’s grandmother introduced her to cooking. This quickly became a passion that became a greater part of her life. Maya often celebrated her successes with friends and family, by preparing her delicious soups and baked goods.

At the age of 8, Maya Angelou and her brother moved back to St. Louis to live with their mother. This was a major shift from the safe and comfortable environment that Maya was accustomed to, as her mother demands were much stricter.

However, under her mother’s guidance and strict rules, Maya Angelou began to develop a greater sense of independence and confidence. It was then, at the age of 13, that Maya earned her nickname ‘Maya’, which was inspired by the poem she wrote for a local radio station’s competition.


As a student, Maya Angelou was exposed to a broad range of literature and influential works. She was exposed to the works of W.E.B. Dubois and James Weldon Johnson, who greatly shaped her perspective and the poet she eventually became.

Several of her personal acquaintances also shaped her views, such as her brother-in-law, who would gift her records of the great African American intellectuals. Her travels to Ghana and throughout Europe, as well as her frequent visits to the historic jazz clubs of New York City. This exposure to a wide range of cultures, and the literary works of her contemporaries, provided Maya with new perspectives, which shaped her poetic ability.

Maya Angelou also gained much of her inspiration from the people of the south – from the sounds, sights and conversations. For example, the conversations that she had with her grandmother provided her with wise counsel and valuable knowledge which guided her long career as a poet.

These conversations and her experience of life in rural Arkansas also inspired her first book ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. This highly acclaimed book not only details Maya Angelou’s experiences growing up in the south, but also expresses her views on the importance of community, racial tension and self-expression.

Maya Angelou was able to use the experiences she had in her early life, to create amazing works of art, which continue to inspire generations today.

Later Years

In her later years, Maya Angelou continued to be an active and vocal member of the civil rights movement. In 1993, she wrote and narrated a poem, entitled ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, which was recited at the United States’ presidential inauguration in the same year.

She received numerous awards for her published works and civil rights activism, such as the Spingarn Medal which is the highest honour awarded by the NAACP – an African American civil rights organisation. She was awarded honorary degrees from numerous universities, and frequently acted as a guest lecturer at various members of the public.

Maya also continued to travel around the world, lecturing and performing her works. She acted in television, stage and film productions, and continued to teach classes about writing and literature.

Maya Angelou established herself as a respected voice and powerful figure in not just the African American, but the global community. Her books and words are studied, discussed and admired the world over, and appear in literature classes, curriculum and text books.


At the age of 86, Maya Angelou passed away, leaving behind an incredible legacy. Her works and words continue to inspire and influence people today.

Her story continues to be an example of standing up to oppression and prejudice, and of finding strength through adversity. She is also an example of pursuing creativity and finding success, despite the many difficulties and challenges faced by African American women.

Maya Angelou’s writing and activism is on-going, and are examples of what a positive contribution to society can look like. From her unwavering strength in adversity, to her ability to conclude with grace, Maya Angelou is remembered for setting an example for young African American women and for all of us.


Maya Angelou’s work and words have had a lasting impact on her readers and those who were lucky enough to know her. She has had a huge influence on civil rights and women’s rights movements, and has been an inspiration to many people, both young and old.

Her works have captured the hearts of many, and her influence continues to be felt. Her activism, thoughts and words are included in the syllabi of numerous universities, and her poems have been taught in many schools and colleges.

Maya Angelou’s life and work continue to be celebrated globally. Her powerful words have been included in the collective archives of African American literature and are included in many literature classrooms across the globe.

Maya Angelou’s efforts to improve the lives of African American women, as well as her contributions to civil rights activism, have made her an inspiration and a role model to many who continue to strive for change.

Analysing Maya Angelou’s Work

Maya Angelou’s work has been analysed by many, with her references to poetry, literature and religion popular topics of discussion. Studies of her work have found the presence of African religion, African American history and Southern culture within her work, as well as her expressions of female struggles and courage.

Maya Angelou’s ability to capture the human experience in her writing is one of the reasons for her success. By conveying difficult themes in accessible prose, Maya Angelou was able to touch so many people from all backgrounds.

Maya Angelou’s life and works are a testament to her persistent courage and struggle for justice and equality. That struggle continues to live on through stories and poems that inspire us to rise above racism and oppression, and to create a society where everyone is valued and respected.

Final Thoughts

Maya Angelou has left an indelible mark in the literary world, and her work will continue to be remembered and cherished for generations to come. Her distinctive physical presence, with her sparkling eyes, luminous skin and towering hat, is synonymous with the powerful words she wrote and the courageous civil rights activist she was.

Maya Angelou has forever changed the landscape of civil rights, women’s rights and African American literature, and her works will continue to serve as powerful examples of what it means to be a courageous human being.

Maya Angelou was a woman of history. Her physical presence, words and courage continue to impact the world today, inspiring generations to come and to stand up for what they believe in.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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