By Jueseppi B.
Twenty-second in The “One A Day” Black History Month Series: Ms. Maya Angelou.
I first learned of Ms. Angelou as a child reading her book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings“. From that moment in time until now, Ms. Maya Angelou has been one of my top 5 authors. Get to know her as well.
Maya Angelou /ˈmaɪ.ə ˈændʒəloʊ/; born Marguerite Ann Johnson; April 4, 1928) is an American author and poet who has been called “America’s most visible black female autobiographer” by scholar Joanne M. Braxton. She is best known for her series of six autobiographical volumes, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences.
The first and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her first seventeen years. It brought her international recognition, and was nominated for a National Book Award. She has been awarded over 30 honorary degrees and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom the highest civilian honour in the U.S.
Ms. Angelou was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s, was active in the Civil Rights movement, and served as Northern Coordinator of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Since 1991, she has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. Since the 1990s she has made around eighty appearances a year on the lecture circuit.
In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. In 1995, she was recognized for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.
With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was heralded as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. She is highly respected as a spokesperson for Black people and women. Angelou’s work is often characterized as autobiographical fiction.
She has, however, made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Her books, centered on themes such as identity, family, and racism, are often used as set texts in schools and universities internationally. Some of her more controversial work has been challenged or banned in U.S. schools and libraries.
Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya”, shortened from “my-a-sister”. The details of Angelou’s life described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tend to be inconsistent. Her biographer, Mary Jane Lupton, 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 is partially descended from the Mende people of West Africa. A 2008 PBS documentary found that Angelou’s maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, who had been emancipated after the Civil War, became pregnant by her former white owner, John Savin. Savin forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. After indicting Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, a grand jury 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 their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In what editor Claudia Johnson called “an astonishing exception” 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”.
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 killed, probably by Angelou’s uncles.
Angelou became mute for almost five years, 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…” According to Angelou’s biographers 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.
Shortly after Freeman’s murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors that would affect her life and career, as well as Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset. When Angelou was 14, she and her brother returned to live with her mother in Oakland, California. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School while studying 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”.
Angelou’s second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19 and “depicts a single mother’s slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime.” Angelou worked as “the front woman/business manager for prostitutes,” restaurant cook, and prostitute. She moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education.
Ms. Angelou has been married three times or more (something she has never clarified, “for fear of sounding frivolous”). In her third autobiography,Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Angelou describes her three-year marriage to Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Enistasious (Tosh) Angelos in 1951, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother.
She took modern dances classes during this time, and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Angelou and Ailey formed a dance team, calling themselves “Al and Rita”, and performed Modern Dance at fraternal Black organizations throughout San Francisco, but never became successful. She studied African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, and her new husband and son moved with her to New York City, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
After Angelou’s marriage ended, she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco, including the nightclub The Purple Onion, where she sang and danced calypso music. Up to that point she went by the name of “Marguerite Johnson”, or “Rita”, but changed her professional name to, at the strong suggestion of her managers and supporters at The Purple Onion, “Maya Angelou”, a “distinctive name” that set her apart and captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances.
During 1954 and 1955 Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of trying to learn the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages. In 1957, riding on the popularity of calypso, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, which was reissued as a CD in 1996. She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.
As Angelou described in her fourth autobiography, The Heart of a Woman, she met novelist James O. Killens in 1959, and at his urging, moved to New York to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several major African American authors, including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield, and was published for the first time.
After meeting and hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1960, she and Killens organized “the legendary” Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was named SCLC’s Northern Coordinator. According to Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and “eminently effective”. Angelou began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.
In 1961, Angelou met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make; they never officially married. Also in 1961, she performed in Jean Genet‘s The Blacks, along with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson. She and Guy moved to Cairo later that year with Make, where Angelou worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper The Arab Observer.
In 1962 her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Accra, Ghana, he to attend college, where he was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Angelou remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1965, later relating her experiences as an African American residing in Ghana in her fifth autobiography, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.
She became an administrator at the University of Ghana, and was active in the African-American expatriate community. She was a feature editor for The African Review, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana, and worked and performed for Ghana’s National Theatre. She performed in a revival of The Blacks in Geneva and Berlin.
In Accra, she became close friends with Malcolm X during his visit in the early 1960s. As she wrote about in her sixth and final autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), Angelou returned to the U.S. to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1965; he was assassinated shortly afterward. Devastated and adrift, she joined her brother in Hawaii, where she resumed her singing career, and then moved back to Los Angeles to focus on her writing career.
She worked as a market researcher in Watts and witnessed the riots in the summer of 1965. She acted in and wrote plays, and returned to New York in 1967. She met her life-long friend Rosa Guy and renewed her friendship with James Baldwin, whom she met in Paris in the 1950s and called “my brother”, during this time. Her friend Jerry Purcell provided Angelou with a stipend to support her writing.
In 1968, King asked her to organize a march. She agreed, but “postpones again”, and in what Angelou’s biographers call “a macabre twist of fate”, he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4). Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by Baldwin. As her biographers state, “If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou’s spirit and creative genius”.
Despite almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated “Blacks, Blues, Black!”, a ten-part series of documentaries which dealt with the connection between blues music and Black Americans’ African heritage, as well as what Angelou called the “Africanisms still current in the U.S.” for the National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS.
Also in 1968, inspired by a dinner party she attended with her friend James Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and Feiffer’s wife Judy, and challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis, she wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.
In the next ten years, as her biographers stated, “She had accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime”. She worked as a composer, writing for singer Roberta Flack and composing movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts and documentaries, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays, and was named visiting professors of several colleges and universities.
She was “a reluctant actor”, and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in Look Away. In 1977 Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. She began being awarded with hundreds of awards and honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world.
In the late ’70s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey’s close friend and mentor. Her attempts at producing and directing films were frustrated throughout the 80s. She returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing. Also in 1981, the mother of her son Guy’s child disappeared with him; it took eight years to find Angelou’s grandson.
Angelou finally achieved her goal of directing a feature film in 1996, Down in the Delta, which featured actors such as Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes.
Angelou’s mother Vivian Baxter and brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., both of whom were important figures in her life and her books, died; her mother in 1991 and her brother in 2000 after a series of strokes. Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit in a customized tour bus, something she continued into her eighties.
In 2000, she created a successful collection of products for Hallmark, including greeting cards and decorative household items. Over thirty years after Angelou began writing her life story, Angelou completed the sixth and final autobiography in her series of six, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, in 2002.
In late 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. They consisted of over 340 boxes of documents that featured her handwritten notes on yellow legal pads for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a 1982 telegram from Coretta Scott King, fan mail, and personal and professional correspondence from colleagues such as Robert Loomis.
Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has used the same “writing ritual” for many years. She would wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Bible, and would leave by the early afternoon.
She would average 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she edited down to three or four pages in the evening. Angelou went through this process to “enchant” herself, and as she has said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, “relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang.”
She placed herself back in the time she is writing about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to “tell the human truth” about her life. Angelou has stated that she played cards in order to get to that place of enchantment, in order to access her memories more effectively. She has stated, “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!” She did not find the process cathartic; rather, she has found relief in “telling the truth”.
Ms. Maya Angelou is one of the most honored writers of her generation. She has been honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors have included a National Book Award nomination for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammys for her spoken word albums.
In 1995, Angelou’s publishing company, Random House, recognized her for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List. She has served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Angelou has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees.
“I write because I am a Black woman, listening attentively to her people”.
~Maya Angelou, 1984~
Next in the “One A Day Black History Month Series….Dr. Olivia Hooker.
Filed under: Black History, Book Reviews, Celebs & Fame, History, News, Race, Women's Causes | Tagged: Angelou, Bill Clinton, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, United States, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem North Carolina | 8 Comments »