Dr. Maya Angelou, poet, author, activist, teacher, singer/song-writer, and dancer, entertained and illuminated people for over eight decades. Sometimes referred to as a Renaissance woman, she had broad interests and talents. She spoke many languages, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Fanti (a West African language) included. Throughout her life, she constantly challenged boundaries and conventions.
I’ve been planning on having a blog post about Maya Angelou for two years now. All of my life I have been fascinated by her, her words, the cadence of her voice as she reads one of her poems. From her books I learned to fight for my beliefs. How important it is to take charge of your life and make a change, if you need that change. I’m thrilled to bring some of her life to light for you in this blog.
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Maya Angelou
The challenges of Dr. Maya Angelou’s childhood greatly influenced her writings later in life.
Born Marguerite Johnson on 4 April 1928, Dr. Maya Angelou and her family lived in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Bailey Johnson, Sr, worked for the navy as a dietitian. Her mother Vivian Baxter, worked a variety of jobs, including as a nurse, a hotel owner, and a card dealer. They divorced when she was young. After the divorce, they sent her and her older brother Bailey to live with her paternal grandmother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.
Growing up in the deep south during the Great Depression and Jim Crow Laws, Dr. Angelou experienced racial prejudice first hand. At the same time, her background immersed her in African American traditions and her grandmother’s deep religious faith. A strong woman, her grandmother instilled a great sense of self within her granddaughter as well as helped build her overall confidence. This would benefit her greatly many times in her life.
In 1936, a little less than a year after Dr. Maya Angelou had gone briefly back to live with her mother, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Devastated, Dr. Angelou told her family, and she testified against him in court. The court tried and convicted him. He only spent one day in jail, however. Shortly after his release, he was murdered.
Dr. Angelou assumed that her uncles killed the boyfriend in retribution for her assault. She believed he died because she told people about what had happened to her. As a result, she stopped speaking for five years, becoming what she commonly refers to as a “Volunteer Mute.”
“I was a volunteer mute. I had voice but I refused to use it. When I heard about his murder, I thought my voice had killed a man and so it wasn’t safe to speak. After a while, I no longer knew why I didn’t speak, I simply didn’t speak.” –Maya Angelou
Only her brother Bailey could get her to speak during those years.
The years Maya Angelou was a ‘volunteer mute’ were very pivotal in her life.
While she didn’t speak, she immersed herself in literature, including poetry. She had moved back in with her Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Ms. Henderson owned a General Store there. Their part of town was small enough that you knew just about everyone.tellsIn I know why the caged bird sings Dr. Maya Angelou speaks of a monumental encounter with a gentlewoman, Ms. Bertha Flowers.
Ms. Flowers invited Marguerite, as she called her, to her home for a visit and conversation. She encouraged Angelou to speak again by helping her find and understand the beauty and power of the spoken word. She also taught Angelou the value of education and a love for poetry. Thanks to Flowers and her heart-healing friendship, Angelou graduated at the top of her 8th grade class. The value of the spoken word became a common theme in her writing and speeches for the rest of Angelou’s life.
“When I was a volunteer mute and began to speak again, I realized I had left my voice, my voice had not left me.”–Maya Angelou, twitter, 24 Aug. 2010
Maya Angelou went on to have a successful career as a singer, dancer, and actor.
During World War II, Angelou moved to San Francisco where she attended George Washington High School. She received a scholarship to the California Labor School, where she studied dance and acting. Shortly after she graduated, she gave birth to her only son, Guy Johnson.
Among her many achievements, she toured with the production of Porgy and Bess in 1954-1955. She participated in an off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave in 1957. In the same year, Dr. Angelou also released her first album, Miss Calypso, on which she was both the lyricist and performer. She also organized, wrote, and starred in Cabaret for Freedom, a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1961, Dr. Angelou performed in the off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks. She earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in 1973’s Look Away (1977) and an Emmy Award nomination for her role in the television miniseries Roots.
She chose her professional name, Maya Angelou, initially as a stage name. Maya came from a childhood nickname. Her brother called her “My” or “Maya” as a shortened version of “My sister” because he had a hard time pronouncing her given name. She took her last name from a shortened version of her first husband’s name, Anastasios Angelopulos.
Maya Angelou was also active in the Civil Rights Movement.
Angelou became close to both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She got to know Malcolm X during the period when she lived in Africa, in the early 60s. She came back to the United States to help establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity for him. Unfortunately, the organization failed after Malcom X’s death.
Angelou worked with King as the Northern Coordinator for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The assassinations of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. hit her hard. She struggled, particularly, with King’s assassination as he was killed on her birthday. Because of the timing, she didn’t celebrate her birthday for years afterwards. Civil Rights themes feature prominently in her writings.
Dr. Maya Angelou is best known for her poetry, memoirs, and essays.
In the late 1950s Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild in New York because she wanted to be a poet and a playwright. Through the guild, she met a number of prominent authors, including novelist and playwright James Baldwin. Baldwin helped convince her to write her first memoir, which became a turning point in her writing career.
Angelou’s poetry has roots in African American oral traditions, such as slave and work songs. She particularly drew from that tradition in her use of personal narratives and her focus on the individual’s response to oppression and suffering. Common themes in her poetry include black beauty, the strength of women and of the human spirit in general, social justice, race, and sexuality. Her poetry in particular, comes to life and shines in her live readings.
Her best known collection of poetry is Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die. Published in 1971, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her most famous and best known poem, however, is ‘On the Pulse of Morning.’ She wrote and performed this poem for President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. This made her the first woman and the first African American to read their poem at a US presidential Inauguration and the second poet ever to do so. In addition, she won a Grammy for her audio edition of this poem.
Hear Maya Angelou recite one of her incredible poems “And Still I Rise”.
Dr. Maya Angelou is most famous, however, for her memoirs.
Her best known memoir is I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which covers her first 17 years of life. In it, she used innovative fictional techniques such as dialog and plot that had not been applied previously to autobiographies. It became the first nonfiction work written by an African American woman to become a national bestseller. It remains one of her most popular publications. Teachers still commonly teach it in schools, though it remains controversial because of her depiction of race and her rape.
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,”
–Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
In addition to her memoirs, she wrote essays, cookbooks, and screenplays. In Letter to My Daughter, one of her better known books of essays, she wrote essays to a daughter she never had. Dr. Angelou loved to cook, and her cookbooks blend vignettes from her life and experiences with the recipes. She also wrote successful screenplays. One of them, Georgia, Georgia, became the first screenplay by an African American woman to be produced.
Dr. Maya Angelou spent almost 30 years as a college professor.
In 1982, she received a lifetime appointment as the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Dr. Angelou discovered that she loved teaching. Teaching was her greatest love and calling. She loved it and chose to continue it for as long as she was able. She taught until 2011, at 83, when she had to stop due to increasing health issues.
On 28 May 2014, Maya Angelou passed away. Her work still inspires, ignites and encourages people around the world.
- 1975-1977: She served on the presidential committee for President Gerald Ford (1975) and for President Jimmy Carter (1977).
- 1998: She won the Chicago International Film Festival’s Audience Choice Award for Down in the Delta.
- 2000: President Bill Clinton gave her the National Medal of Arts.
- She earned two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category:
- 2005: cookbook A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes
- 2008: Letter to My Daughter.
- 2010: President Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- 2013: She received the Literarian Award, an honorary National Book Award given contributions to the literary community.
- She received more than 30 honorary degrees.
“Our country needs us all right now to stand up and be counted. We need to try to be great citizens. We are necessary in this country, and we need to give something — that is to say, go to a local hospital, go to the children’s ward and offer to the nurse in charge an hour twice a month that you can give them reading children’s stories or poetry… And go to an old folks’ home and read the newspaper to somebody. Go to your church or your synagogue or your mosque, and say, ‘I’d like to be of service. I have one hour twice a month.’ You’ll be surprised at how much better you will feel,” she said. “And good done anywhere is good done everywhere.”Maya Angelou, CNN Interview 2009
Explore some of our other Authors, Poets and Playwrights.
- Authors, Poets and Playwrights, a Special Feature at The Researcher’s Gateway