28 Days Of Black History Day #8 Maya Angelou
28 Days Of Black History Day #8 Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou born Marguerite Ann Johnson; April 4, 1928) is an American author and poet. She has published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than fifty years. She has received dozens of awards and over thirty honorary doctoral degrees. Angelou is 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 seventeen, and brought her international recognition and acclaim.
Angelou’s list of occupations includes pimp, prostitute, night-club dancer and performer, castmember of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, author, journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the days of decolonization, and actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. Since 1982, she has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She was active in the Civil Rights movement, and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Since the 1990s she has made around eighty appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. 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.
With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life. She is respected as a spokesperson of Black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of Black culture. Although attempts have been made to ban her books from some US libraries, her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide. Angelou’s major works have been labeled as autobiographical fiction, but many critics have characterized them as autobiographies. She has 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. Angelou is best known for her autobiographies, but she is also an established poet, although her poems have received mixed reviews.
Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and a navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya,” shortened from “My” or “Mya Sister.” When Angelou was three, and her brother four, their parents’ “calamitous marriage” ended, and their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In “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”.[note 1]
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, eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King and Malcolm, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln.
Reviewer John McWhorter, The New Republic (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” 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, Mr. 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. 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 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.
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 Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan 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 moved in with their mother once again; she had since moved to 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, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde (who later 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.
Adulthood and early career: 1951–61
Angelou’s first album, Miss Calypso, produced in 1957, was made possible due to the popularity of her nightclub act.
In 1951, Angelou married Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother.[note 2] She took modern dance 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. Angelou, her new husband, and son moved to New York City so that she could study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
After Angelou’s marriage ended in 1954, 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 at the strong suggestion of her managers and supporters at The Purple Onion she changed her professional name to “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 learning 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.[note 3][note 4]
Angelou 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. In 1960, after meeting civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and hearing him speak, she and Killens organized “the legendary” Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and she was named SCLC’s Northern Coordinator. According to scholar Lyman B. Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and “eminently effective”. Angelou also began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.
In 1961, Angelou performed in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, along with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson. That year she met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make; they never officially married. She and her son Guy moved to Cairo 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, but he was seriously injured in an automobile accident.[note 5] Angelou remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1965. 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.[note 6] Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1965 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity; 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 lifelong friend Rosa Guy and renewed her friendship with James Baldwin, whom she had 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.
Angelou’s friend James Baldwin was instrumental in the publication of her first autobiography.
In 1968, Martin Luther King asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed, but “postpones again”, and in what Gillespie calls “a macabre twist of fate”, he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4).[note 7] Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by her friend James Baldwin. As Gillespie states, “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 about the connection between blues music and Black Americans’ African heritage and what Angelou called the “Africanisms still current in the U.S.” for National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS. Also in 1968, inspired at a dinner party she attended with Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and his 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
Angelou’s Georgia, Georgia, produced by a Swedish film company and filmed in Sweden, the first screenplay written by a Black woman, was released in 1972. She also wrote the film’s soundtrack, despite having very little additional input in the filming of the movie. Angelou married Welsh carpenter and ex-husband of Germaine Greer, Paul du Feu, in San Francisco in 1973.[note 8] In the next ten years, as Gillespie has 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 was given a multitude of awards during this period, including over thirty honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world.
In the late 1970s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey’s close friend and mentor.[note 9] In 1981, Angelou and du Feu divorced. 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. From that point on, she considered herself “a teacher who writes”. Angelou taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing.
Maya Angelou speaking at a rally for Barack Obama, 2008
In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Her recitation resulted in more fame and recognition for her previous works, and broadened her appeal “across racial, economic, and educational boundaries”. The recording of the poem was awarded a Grammy Award. In June 1995, she delivered what Richard Long called her “second ‘public’ poem”, entitled “A Brave and Startling Truth”, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Angelou achieved her goal of directing a feature film in 1996, Down in the Delta, which featured actors such as Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes. 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, she completed her sixth autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven, in 2002. In 2013, at the age of 85, she published the seventh autobiography in her series, Mom & Me & Mom, which focused on her relationship with her mother.
Angelou campaigned for Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential primaries. When Clinton’s campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Senator Barack Obama, who won the election and became the first African American president of the United States. She stated, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism”. 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 her editor Robert Loomis.