Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4 1928. Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a doorman and navy dietitian and her mother Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, was a real estate agent, trained surgical nurse, and later, a merchant marine. Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya", shortened from "my-a-sister". The details of Angelou's life, although described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles, tend to be inconsistent. Her biographer, Mary Jane Lupton, when speaking about these inconsistencies, has explained that when Angelou has spoken about her life, she has done so eloquently but informally and "with no time chart in front of her".
Evidence suggests that Angelou's family is descended from the Mende people of West Africa. A 2008 PBS documentary found that her maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, had been emancipated after the Civil War. The documentary suggested that Lee became pregnant by her former white owner, John Savin, who forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. A grand jury indicted Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County poorhouse in (Missouri) with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, who became Angelou's grandmother. Angelou described Lee as "that poor little black girl, physically and mentally bruised".
The first 17 years of Angelou's life are documented in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When Angelou was three, and her brother four, their parents' "calamitous marriage" ended. Their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas alone, by train, to live with his mother, Annie Henderson. Henderson prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because "she made wise and honest investments". Four years later, the children's father "came to Stamps without warning" and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis. At age eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty, but was jailed for one day. Four days after his release, he was found kicked to death, probably by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute, believing, as she has stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone..." She remained nearly mute for five years. Shortly after Freeman's murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again.
Angelou credits a teacher and friend of Angelou's family, a Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset. When Angelou was 13, she and her brother returned to live with her mother in San Francisco. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School and studied dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Three weeks after completing school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet. At the end of Angelou's third autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, her son changed his name to "Guy Johnson".