Maya Angelou

1928-2014

Poet, dancer, singer, activist, and scholar, Maya Angelou is a world-famous author. She is best known for her unique and pioneering autobiographical writing style.

In April 4, 1928, Marguerite Annie Johnson, known to the world as Maya Angelou, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Due to her parents’ tumultuous marriage and subsequent divorce, Angelou went to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas from an early age. Her older brother, Bailey, gave Angelou her nickname “Maya”.

Returning to her mother’s care briefly at the age of seven, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. He was later jailed and then killed when released from jail. Believing that her confession of the trauma had a hand in the man’s death, Angelou became mute for 6 years. During her mutism and into her teens, she again lived with her grandmother in Arkansas.

Angelou’s interest in the written word and the English language was evident from an early age. Throughout her childhood, she wrote essays, poetry, and kept a journal. When she returned to Arkansas, she took an interest in poetry and memorized works by Shakespeare and Poe.

Prior to the start of World War II, Angelou moved back in with her mother, who at this time was living in Oakland, California. She attended school at Mission High School, and took dance and drama courses at the California Labor School.

When war broke out, Angelou applied to join the Women’s Army Corps. However, her application was rejected because of her involvement in the California Labor School, which was said to have Communist ties. Determined to gain employment, despite only being 15 years old, she decided to apply for the position of street car conductor. Many men had left their jobs to join the services, enabling women to fill them. However, Angelou was barred from applying at first because of her race. But she was undeterred. Every day for three weeks, she tried to request a job application, but was denied. Finally, the company relented and handed her an application. Because she was under the legal working age, she wrote on her application that she was 19. She was accepted for the position and became the first African American woman to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Angelou was employed for a semester and then decided to return to school. In her last year of school, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son soon after graduating from high school.

After graduation, Angelou undertook many civil rights activities. She was northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This organization, which was created in 1957 by Martin Luther King Jr. and originally known as the Southern Leadership Conference, advocates for the rights of African Americans in the United States.

In the 1950s, African American writers in New York City formed the Harlem Writers Guild to nurture and support the publication of Black authors. Angelou was one of the Guild’s early members. During these years, Angelou began writing her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography of her life. The book was published in 1969, and was nominated for the National Book Award the same year. Her autobiography has since been translated into numerous languages, and it has sold over a million copies.

Angelou is also noted for her many and varied singing and dancing styles, including her calypso music performances. She has written numerous poetry volumes, such as her first book of poetry, entitled Just Give me a Drink of Water ‘fore I Diie. She has also recorded spoken albums of her poetry, including “On the Pulse of the Morning”, which she won the Grammy for Best Spoken Album in 1994. The poem was originally written for and delivered at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She also won a Grammy in 1996 and again in 2003 for her spoken albums of poetry.

Angelou also carried out a wide variety of activities on stage and screen as writer, director, and producer. In 1972, she became the first African American woman to have her screen play turned into a film with the production of “Georgia, Georgia”. The supporting parts that she played in the films, “Look Away” in 1973 and “Roots” in 1977, garnered her Tony nominations.

She has been recognized by many universities both nationally and internationally for her contributions to literature. In 1981, Wake Forest University offered Angelou the position of the Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She has also given many commencement speeches and she has been awarded numerous honorary degrees.

Angelou died on May 28, 2014. Several memorials were held in her honor including ones at Wake Forest University and Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. To honor her legacy, the US Postal Service issued a stamp with her likeness on it in 2015. There was some controversy surrounding the stamp, because it erroneously credited her with the quote that appears on it. But the quote was written by another poet.

 

By: Dr. Kelly A. Spring
2017