In a life that was marred by tragedy, Maya Angelou found solace through writing, and reminded all of us that despite our circumstances, we always have something to offer others.
The author of seven autobiographies – including the award-winning “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as well as numerous poetry and essay collections, movies, television programs and NAACP awards, Angelou has become an icon through her work.
Aside from the her vast literary accomplishments and a lasting notoriety and influence among dignitaries, celebrities and politicians, Angelou’s humble beginnings would later define her legacy in American history. So distinguished was Angelou’s accomplishments that the United States Postal Service issued a special commemorative stamp this year. The stamp recognizes Angelou as one of the most distinguished voices captivating American literature, history and culture, almost a year to the day of her death at the age of 86.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Maya Angelou was born into a world filled with poverty and racial tensions. Angelou’s parents, a nurse and a doorman, in what she called a “calamitous marriage” ended when she was just three years old. At that time, Angelou and her older brother were sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother. In Stamps, Angelou spent four years growing up in an environment that was considered luxurious compared to the ravages of the Great Depression, thanks to her grandmother’s successful general store. But this didn’t last long; when Angelou was seven, her father returned and took them back to St. Louis to live with their mother.
As an African American growing up in rural Arkansas, Angelou experienced racial prejudices and discrimination. She was also the victim of violence at the age of seven. Angelou was sexually assaulted by a man named Freeman, who was her mother’s boyfriend. When she confided in her brother and revealed the name of her attacker in the barbaric act, Angelou’s uncles retaliated and killed the boyfriend. She was so devastated by the attack – and the subsequent murder – that she stopped talking for five years. Angelou said she felt a sense of guilt that led her to believe that “my voice would kill anyone,” a phrase she coined years later upon reflection of the incident.
While this period would have a profound impact on Angelou for the rest of her life, it also propelled her to become became introverted and thoughtful. She developed a love for reading and literature, as well as deep introspection and a strong sense of observation.
Angelou didn’t start speaking again until she and her brother were sent back to live with her mother in San Francisco at the age of 13. She credited a teacher with not only introducing her to the classics, but also helping her to speak again and later would attend the California Labor School on scholarship to study dance and acting.
In 1944, Angelou gave birth to her son, Clyde, at the age of 17 after a short-lived relationship with the boy’s father. As a high school dropout and single mother, Angelou supported herself by working several odd jobs as a waitress and cook, and became the city’s first black female cable car conductor. A few years later, she married Anastasios Angelopoulos, a Greek sailor and would later take a combination of his name and her name to rename herself Maya Angelou.
Civil Rights Leader and Author
Angelou spent the next 24 years living and experiencing a vivid and varied career as an entertainer, dancer and writer. She danced with Alvin Ailey in San Francisco, moved to New York City with Angelopoulous and later moved back to San Francisco when the couple divorced in 1954. She then became a professional nightclub dancer and singer, which led to the recording of her first album, Miss Calypso, in 1957.
In 1957, at the height of the Harry Belafonte-inspired calypso craze in America, she recorded her first and only album, Miss Calypso. She composed five of the album’s 14 tracks and is the lead singer on the entire album.
In 1959, a novelist convinced her to move to New York City to focus on her writing career, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and was published for the first time. Angelou joined the growing number of young African American writers and other creatives in support of the civil rights movement as an organizer and fundraiser. In 1961, she met a freedom fighter from South Africa named Vusumzi Make, who moved with her and her son to Africa.
Even a half a world away, Angelou continued to champion civil rights while working as the editor of the English weekly newspaper, The Arab Observer, and as a performer. Make and Angelou would later to move Ghana, where she met and became close friends with civil rights activist Malcolm X. It was Malcom X who encouraged Angelou to move back to the U.S. to help him create a new civil rights organization in the mid-1960s.
During the next four years, Angelou would work closely with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., who asked her to serve as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But Angelou’s light would dim with the assassinations of both men, and she was devastated with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. on her birthday in 1968.
From the depression and anguish over their deaths, Angelou turned to writing. The countless hours would propel her to publish her first autobiography and major work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” in 1969 at age 41.
My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.
Over the next 15 years, Angelou “accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime,” according to biographer Marcia Ann Gillespie. She wrote screenplays and soundtracks for films, created short stories and articles, wrote scripts for television shows and documentaries, wrote more autobiographies and poetry, and produced plays. She received a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play “Look Away” and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television miniseries, “Roots.” She made her directorial debut, authored a cookbook and was introduced to a new generation of women through her long friendship with Oprah, who featured Angelou on her show and openly talked about the impact her work had on her life. During President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, she was asked to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” becoming the first poet to do an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost in 1961 at President John Kennedy’s inauguration.
She would receive over 30 honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning from all over the world for her work. Angelou also went back to school, this time to teach, at the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University from 1981 until her death in 2014.
Angelou was a leading force in American literature and an icon for American women during a time when women were not often acknowledged as leaders in literature or any field. As a strong representative of the African-American culture throughout her life, she served as a role model for countless women. Today, she is still making an impact on all American women through her literary works and historical recounts of her civil involvement.
Nella DeCesare is a freelance writer and marketer who resides in Southwest Florida NellaDeCesare.com.