Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Johnson. Her father was a naval dietician, and her mother engaged in various careers, such as card dealing, boardinghouse management, and registered nursing. Her parents divorced when she was three, and they sent Marguerite and her brother, Bailey, to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas which was, at the time, racially segregated. She called her grandmother “Momma,” and described her as having “a deep-brooding love that hung over everything she touched.” It was there that the stage was set for an extraordinary life to come, in which Marguerite Johnson became Maya Angelou, poet, historian, author, actress, dancer, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director, fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and West African Fanti. Maya, so-called because of a nickname her brother bestowed upon her, and Bailey lived a strict and structured life with their grandmother in Arkansas for four years before their mother sent for them. In 1935 the children moved to St. Louis to live with their mother, where life was distinctly different from what they had become accustomed to in Stamps. In 1936, her mother’s boyfriend raped Maya. At first, she told no one. Later, though, she told Bailey, and later still, her mother. Maya was forced to testify against the man at trial, after which he was released. Days later, the man was found beaten to death. In her autobiographical book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou says of the experience, “I was seven and a half and I thought that my voice had killed him, that if I hadn’t spoken his name, if I hadn’t spoken, that the man would still be alive and so I took responsibility for his death and stopped talking.” Maya remained mute for five years. When Maya stopped speaking, she and Bailey were sent back to Stamps to live with their grandmother. During this time of silence, she listened carefully and read at every opportunity, which helped her to develop proficiency for dialogue, and a sense for the cadence of the spoken word. While most who met her believed her muteness indicative of stupidity, her family and a few others knew otherwise. One teacher in particular, Mrs. Flowers, helped Maya to develop an enthusiasm for language and reading. She encouraged the young girl to read and recite poetry, and to write some of her own. With Mrs. Flowers’ encouragement and tutelage, Maya began to regain the pride and confidence that she had lost as a result of her trauma. In her late teens and early twenties, Maya had numerous jobs. She was a Creole cook, a madam, a tap dancer, a prostitute, and a chaufferette. In 1952, Maya married a former sailor named Tosh Angelos. Angelos was a source of stability for Maya and her son, and the couple remained married for five years. It was during this time period that she performed at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco, where she adopted the name of Maya Angelou. In 1954-55 she toured with the Everyman’s Opera Company in their production of “Porgy and Bess.” In 1959 she moved to Brooklyn to join the Harlem Writers Guild. In 1960 her activism in the Civil Rights movement blossomed. She became the Northeastern Regional Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, appeared in an off-Broadway play called “The Blacks,” and directed, performed in, and co-wrote with Godfrey Cambridge a play called “Cabaret for Freedom. She also met Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, and married a South African freedom fighter by the name of Vusumi Make. Shortly thereafter she moved to Cairo, where she was the editor of The Arab Observer, which was the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East. From there, she moved on to serve as the assistant administrator at the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana, and worked as a feature editor for the African Review. She also was a contributor to the Ghanian Times and Ghanian Broadcasting Company. 1970 brought Angelou widespread literary recognition with the release of her autobiographical book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which dealt with her years as a youngster, up through the birth of her son. Over the next decade, she would publish three more autobiographical novels, as well as numerous books of poetry. Angelou has been seen as a groundbreaker for black women, in that she has made numerous television appearances, has written and produced several prize-winning documentaries, and was the first black woman screenwriter to have her work filmed. She has received numerous accolades, including nominations for a National Book Award and for a Pulitzer Prize. In addition, she has held posts as a writer-in-residence at the University of Kansas, a chair in American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, was a distinguished visiting professor at numerous universities, and was selected by the Ladies Home Journal as Woman of the Year in communications in 1976. In 1993, President Clinton asked Angelou to deliver a poem at the inaugural ceremonies, another first for an African American woman. Indeed, no poet had read at an inaugural ceremony since Robert Frost, in 1961, when he read at the induction of John F. Kennedy. This remarkable woman has enjoyed, endured, and embarked upon an astounding journey to get to where she is today. As is the case with many of the creative geniuses of our time and those of the past, Angelou has a few quirks. She regularly wakes at 5:00 a.m. to go to a motel room near her home, where she reclines on a fully-made bed with a Bible, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a bottle of sherry. There she writes her poetry and prose on yellow legal pads. In addition, she has been married several times, though she declines to disclose how many. In fact, in general, she is not forthcoming with respect to her current personal life. However, her respect for humanity in all its forms, beautiful and imperfect alike, are not quirky, but altogether admirable. They allow her to write with a candid honesty rarely found. In an interview with Ken Kelly, she illustrates this view:   A: The most delicious piece of knowledge for me is that [pauses] I am a child of God. That is so mind-boggling, that this "it" created everything, and I am a child of "it." It means I am connected to every thing and every body. That's all delicious and wonderful--until I'm forced to realize that the bigot, the brute, the batterer is also a child of "it" [laughs]. Now, he may not know it, but I'm obliged to know that he is. I have to. That is my contract… It seems to me that if we accept--if I accept, anyway--the fact of evil, I accept the fact of good. We're all doing what Anne Sexton calls "that awful rowing toward God." That excites me. It gives me incredible delight to be alive, and prepares me with as little fear as possible for death. It remains that I live a very nice life, most of the time. Maya Angelou remains active as a poet, author, lecturer, and political activist. Her novels remain widely read and taught in schools, and her life and work continue to be the subject of much discourse. She is as self-aware as a person could hope to be in life, and is a role model for numerous people, from school children to adults, of all races and socioeconomic walks of life.   Following is a reprint of her poem, “On The Pulse of Morning,” which she read at President Clinton’s inaugural ceremony: "ON THE PULSE OF MORNING" A Rock, A River, A Tree Hosts to species long since departed, Marked the mastodon. The dinosaur, who left dry tokens Of their sojourn here On our planet floor, Any broad alarm of their hastening doom Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages. But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, Come, you may stand upon my Back and face your distant destiny, But seek no haven in my shadow I will give you no hiding place down here. You, created only a little lower than The angels, have crouched too long in The bruising darkness, Have lain too long Face down in ignorance Your mouths spilling words Armed for slaughter. The Rock cries out to us today, you stand on me, But do not hide your face. Across the wall of the world, A River sings a beautiful song, It says, come rest here by my side. Each of you a bordered country, Delicate and strangely made proud, Yet thrusting perpetually undersiege Your armed struggles for profit Have left collars of waste upon My shore, currents of debris upon my breast. Yet, today I call you to my riverside, If you will study war no more. Come, Clad in peace and I will sing the songs The Creator gave to me when I and the Tree and the Rock were one. Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your Brow and when you yet knew you still Knew nothing. The River sings and sings on. There is a true yearning to respond to The singing River and the wise Rock. So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew The African, the Native American, the Sioux, The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh, The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher, The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher. They all hear The speaking of the Tree. They hear the first and last of every Tree Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River. Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River. Each of you, descendant of some passed On traveler, has been paid for. You, who gave me my first name, you Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of Other seekers--desperate for gain, Starving for gold. You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot, You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare Praying for a dream. Here, root yourselves beside me. I am that Tree planted by the River, Which will not be moved I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree I am yours--your Passages have been paid Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need For this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon This day breaking for you. Give birth again To the dream. Women, children, men, Take it into the palms of your hands. Mold it into the shape of your most Private need. Sculpt it into The image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts Each new hour holds new chances For new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness. The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day You may have the courage To look up and out and upon me, the Rock, the River, the Tree, your country. No less to Midas than the mendicant. No less to you now than the mastodon then. Here on the pulse of this new day You may have the grace to look up and out And into your sister's eyes, and into Your brother's face, your country And say simply Very simply With hope Good morning.   Mangelou Links :