Maya Angelou

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Angelou on February 4, 2013

Maya Angelou[1][2] (i/ˈmaɪ.ə ˈændʒəloʊ/; born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014) was an American poet, author, writer, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, films, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou was best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim.

Angelou became a poet and writer after a series of jobs as a young adult, including fry cook, sex worker, nightclub dancer and performer, cast member of Porgy and Bess, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She was an actress, director, producer of plays, movies, and public television programs, and writer. In 1982, she earned the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Angelou was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Beginning in the 1990s, Angelou made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" (1993) at Bill Clinton's inauguration, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she publicly discussed aspects of her personal life. She was respected as a spokesperson for black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of black culture. Her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide though attempts have been made to ban her books from some U.S. libraries. Angelou's most celebrated works have been labeled as autobiographical fiction, but many critics consider them to be autobiographies. She made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing and expanding the genre. Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family and travel.

On May 28, 2014, Angelou died in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina of natural causes at the age of 86.[3]

Early life[change | change source]

Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson[4] in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer.[5][note 1] Angelou's older brother Bailey, Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya," derived from "My" or "Mya Sister."[6] When Angelou was three and her brother four, their parents' "calamitous marriage"[7] ended, and their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train, to live with their paternal grandmother Annie Henderson. In "an astonishing exception"[8] to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time, Angelou's grandmother 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".[5][note 2]

And Angelou's life has certainly been a full one: From the hardscrabble Depression era South to pimp, prostitute, supper club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, and eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King and Malcolm, Billie Holiday, and Abbey Lincoln.

Linguist John McWhorter, The New Republic[10] (McWhorter, p. 36)

To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn't have to go through half the things she has.

The Guardian writer Gary Younge, 2009

Four years later, the children's father "came to Stamps without warning"[11] and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis. At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou's uncles.[12] Angelou became mute for almost five years,[13] believing, as she 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..."[14] According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography about Angelou, it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.[15]

Shortly after Freeman's murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother.[16] Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors who would affect her life and career, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.[17][18][19]

When Angelou was 14, she and her brother moved in with their mother once again, who had since moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, Angelou attended the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.[20] Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson).[21][22]

References[change | change source]

  1. Angelou wrote about Vivian Baxter's life and their relationship in Mom & Me & Mom (2013), her final installment in her series of seven autobiographies.
  2. According to Angelou, Annie Henderson built her business with food stalls catering to black workers, which eventually developed into a store.[9]

Other websites[change | change source]

Media related to Maya Angelou at Wikimedia Commons

  1. "Maya Angelou". SwissEduc.com. December 17, 2013. Archived from the original on 2013-12-17. 
  2. Glover, Terry (December 2009). "Dr. Maya Angelou". Ebony 65 (2): 67. 
  3. "Dr. Maya Angelou dead at 86". Winston-Salem, North Carolina: WXII12.com. Retrieved May 28, 2014. 
  4. Ferrer, Anne (May 29, 2014). "Angelou's optimism overcame hardships". The Star Phoenix. Archived from the original on May 31, 2014. Retrieved May 30, 2014. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lupton, p. 4.
  6. Angelou (1969), p. 67.
  7. Angelou (1969), p. 6.
  8. Johnson, Claudia (2008). "Introduction". In Johnson, Claudia. Racism in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-7377-3905-3. 
  9. Angelou (1993), pp. 21–24.
  10. McWhorter, John (May 28, 2014). "Saint Maya Angelou: The Product of a Blissfully Bygone America". The New Republic. Retrieved December 25, 2016. 
  11. Angelou (1969), p. 52.
  12. Braxton, Joanne M. (1999). Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook. Oxford University Press. p. 121. ISBN 9780195116076. 
  13. Lupton, p. 5.
  14. "Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings". World Book Club. BBC World Service. October 2005. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  15. Gillespie et al., p. 22.
  16. Gillespie et al., pp. 21–22.
  17. Angelou (1969), p. 13.
  18. Gillespie et al., p. 23.
  19. Lupton, p. 15.
  20. Gillespie et al., p. 28.
  21. Angelou (1969), p. 279.
  22. Long, Richard (November 1, 2005). "35 Who Made a Difference: Maya Angelou". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved December 17, 2013.