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Who Is Maya Angelou | Read Time 10-12 Minutes.
“If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Poet. Author. Memoirist. Civil rights activist. LGBT advocate. Mother. Woman.
A spokesperson for the the black community in America and respected by government and society alike.
She is the one and only Maya Angelou.
During her career, Maya Angelou published 7 autobiographies, 3 books of essays and many pieces of poetry. She was active in the black civil rights movement and worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She was an advocate for LGBT rights and fought for same sex marriage for many years.
Maya Angelou is one of the most important faces of modern literature. She is widely known as the first black female author to achieve mainstream success. In fact, Angelou had many firsts in her life (first black female Hollywood director to name but one.)
Maya Angelou’s literary works take root from her life experiences, especially her journey with the black rights movement and her childhood experiences with sexual abuse.
Her life is fascinating, her achievements impressive and her legacy timeless.
“Maya, meaning my sister.”
Who is Maya Angelou?
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, 1928. Her parents’ marriage came to an end when Maya was just 3 years old. Subsequently, her and her brother Bailey moved to Arkansas to live with their Grandmother.
On return to Missouri in 1936, Maya was not met with the loving arms that she expected. Instead, she was introduced to her Mother’s new partner, Freeman. What followed was a period of neglect, rape and sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s new lover.
Maya couldn’t confide in any of the adults around her of the trauma she was experiencing. In confidence, Maya told Bailey of the abuse and in turn Bailey told their family.
Freeman went to jail for his actions, but only for a short period of time.
Coincidentally, he was murdered shortly after his release.
Deeply shaken by her experience, Maya blamed herself for Freeman’s death. She felt as though her words killed him; that the blame lay with her. Following this, Maya Angelou took a vow of silence and didn’t speak to anyone for nearly 5 years.
“I thought, my voice killed him; that man died because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again because my voice would kill anyone.”
Maya began to speak again at 13, when she and her brother moved to live with their mother in San Francisco.
She attended Mission High School and won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School, an insitution for gifted and talented students.
Maya shortly dropped out of school in her teens and made history when she become San Francisco’s first African American female cable car conductor.
Later, Maya returned to high school, but became pregnant in her senior year. Three weeks after she graduated, at the age of 16, Maya gave birth to her son, Guy. Her rapid transition to motherhood forced her to support herself. By the time she was 17, she was working two jobs as a waitress and cook.
But she had not given up on her talents for music and dance. Maya began to involve herself in local dancing groups and quickly discovered that she had talents on the stage.
Photo thanks to www.wfdd.org
“Everything in the universe has a rhythm. Everything dances”
Throughout her life, Angelou had a variety of performance based jobs. She was a skilled dancer, and loved everything with rhythm and soul. Her first dancing role was with choreographer Alvin Ailey, when they created the dancing duo Al and Rita.
In 1952, Maya married a Greek man named Tosh Angelopulos. Later, after Maya and Tosh were married, she and her family moved to New York City, so she could perform in a different dancing duo, with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus.
When she began her career as a nightclub singer, she took the professional name Maya Angelou, combining her childhood nickname with a form of her husband’s surname.
A year later, Angelou and her family grew tired of NYC and moved back to San Francisco.
After returning to San Francisco, Maya was invited to tour Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess in 1954 and 1955. Maya studied modern dance with Martha Graham and recorded her first record album, Calypso Lady, in 1957, following her experiences as a calypso dancer at The Purple Onion club. After she divorced her husband, Maya and her son moved to Ghana, where she spent a large part of her life.
“NOTHING WILL WORK UNLESS YOU DO.”
Much of Maya Angelou’s adult life was spent working with black civil rights activists and educating people on the fight for black equality. This was also a huge inspiration for her literary works, especially I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969).
Angelou worked closely with Malcolm X while her and her son were living in Ghana. When Maya returned to the USA, she had the full intention of helping Malcolm X build his new Organization of African American Unity. Little was she to know that shortly after her return, Malcolm X would be assassinated.
Angelou was also closely acquainted with Martin Luther King Jr. She worked with the Civil Rights Movement and alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. who appointed her as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on Maya Angelou’s 40th Birthday.
For 6 years after his assassination, Maya refused to celebrate her birthday, as a sign of mourning.
“It is a great blessing to have lived in the time of Martin Luther King Jr., when forgiveness and generosity of spirit encouraged our citizenry to work for a better world for everybody.”
Photo thanks to www.timeline.com
“Shakespeare Must be a black girl”
Much of Maya Angelou’s literary work stems from her childhood experiences.
It was during her silent years that Angelou developed her memory, creativity and ability to observe the world and her love for literature.
Angelou credits one of her teachers for breaking her silence. This teacher, Mrs Bertha Flowers, introduced Maya to a variety of classic literary figures such as Shakespeare, Dickens and Poe. She also introduced her to black female artists such as Anne Spencer and Jessie Faucet.
Later on in her life, Maya Angelou would emerge to create some literary masterpieces.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the 1st of Angelou’s 7 autobiographies. It was the first non-fiction best seller by an African American woman. This story is both famous and critiqued for its portrayal of issues such as race, sexual abuse, violence and homophobia.
Phenomenal Woman (1978) is one of Angelou’s most famous poems. This piece looks at her own personal life as a sex worker and as a rape victim. She uses her prose to regain her power, and as a way to empower other women (this poem is a personal favourite.)
On the Pulse of Morning (1993) was read at President Clinton’s inauguration. This is the first piece that was written and spoken by a black woman at a presidential inauguration. On the pulse of Morning is a critical look at America and examines the inequality towards minorities groups at the time.
“I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘me, i never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. there are no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.”
Angelou in a 1995 Interview
“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”
Maya Angelou is one of this year’s featured faces of LGBT History Month. The theme of 2021 (Body, Mind and Spirit) is certainly appropriate for Angelou, a woman who connected entirely with all of the elements of her identity.
Angelou is one of this year’s featured LGBT icons because of how she has inspired the community with her words.
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin once quoted about Angelou that,
“Angelou has said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you. LGBT people know this truth well – and it is part of why so many in our community have looked to her as a hero for so long.”
Her dedication to equality and constant strength to never give up despite the obstacles in her life is certainly appropriate for the struggles felt by the LGBT community.
In 2009, when Angelou was 82, she called for New York senators to promote marriage equality (this actually came into state two years later in 2011. In an interview with the New York Times, Angelou famously quoted,
“To love someone takes a lot of courage… So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person’?”
“STILL, I RISE”
In 1978, Angelou published possibly her most famous poem, Still I Rise.
Still I Rise is a comment on her life as an African-American woman in the USA, but also on her personal experiences with sex and sexual abuse. She speaks not only to herself, but also to any of those who have fought for something and lost, but continue to fight despite obstacles.
Still I Rise ties in with Angelou’s the repeating themes of liberation, survival and power that runs through so much of her work.
Angelou herself commented on its appeal in a 2008 interview: “You know, if you’re lonely you feel you’ve been done down, it’s nice to have ‘Still I Rise.‘”
“You may shoot me with your words,
cut me with your eyes,
kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
Photo thanks to www.harpersbazaar.com
“Phenomenal Woman, That’s Me”
Maya Angelou very quickly became a national figure later on in her life.
In 2011, just 3 years before her death, Barack Obama presented Maya Angelou with The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian medal of honour. This not the only time she was recognised by the US government for her work.
As previously mentioned, Maya was also the first black woman to read her own poetry at a presidential inauguration (Bill Clinton, 1993). Angelou’s poem at the Inauguration On Pulse of Morning was also the first time that the word “gay” was said at an inauguration. This section of the poem infamously spoke of equality, with the line “the gay, the straight and the preacher.”
President Gerald Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, and President Jimmy Carter invited her to serve on the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman.
“I did my best, I hope you do the same.”
On the morning of May 28 2014, Maya Angelou passed away in her home in North Carolina.
Her ashes were scattered at Storm King Mountain, just off the Hudson river in New York. Angelou requested that, when the time came, her gravestone read the message,”I did my best, I hope you do the same.” Although Angelou was cremated as opposed to buried, her legacy still lives on, especially in the message she would have had engraved on her tombstone.
Maya Angelou is important for her resilience and the inspiration that her life has had on the future generation. Her literature, films, poetry and life stories have inspired a generation of poets, authors and politicians.
She spoke to equality for all, regardless of gender or gender identity. Maya always spoke of everyone as equal, as human. Angelou was vocal when others weren’t and never stopped defending the rights of the LGBT community.
“I am gay. lesbian. black. white. Native American. Christian. Jew. Muslim.”
Angelou’s literature consistently discusses adversity, growth and overcoming obstacles. That’s why her work is so applicable to the LGBT community, and why she is one of this year’s featured faces.
She applied a voice of equality to everything she did and her legacy as a woman, as a writer and as an acitivist will live on indefinitely.