Maya Angelou (1928-2014), an American writer, is best known for “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969), probably the best single book about what it was like to grow up Black under Jim Crow. She is also also known for the poems “Still I Rise” (1978) and “Phenomenal Woman” (1978).
She was born Marguerite Johnson. Maya is what her brother called her. He was into the Mayans. Angelou comes from her first husband’s Greek name, Angelos.
Her parents split up when she was three. She and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s.
Four years later, her mother brought them back to live with her, in St Louis. That lasted only six months: at age eight she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she told her brother, the rapist was soon found dead. She learned the terrible power of words.
They were sent back to Stamps. For five years she did not talk. People thought she was a moron or an idiot. But her grandmother told her:
“Mama know when you and the Good Lord get ready, you are going to be a teacher. You’ll teach all over the world.”
She found a voice in books: Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray, Henley, Anne Spencer, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson , W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Litany at Atlanta” (1906) and, above all, Shakespeare and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Writing helped her to talk again.
In the 1940s she went to live with her mother in San Francisco. She became the first female conductor of a San Francisco streetcar. Later she worked as a dancer at a strip club. That led to dancing at the Purple Onion, which in turn led to dancing in “Porgy and Bess” from 1954 to 1955, a show that toured Europe and Africa.
Afterwards she became a nightclub singer. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), the civil rights organization led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1961 she married Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter. That lasted only a few years. She worked as an editor of the Arab Observer in Egypt. From 1962 to 1966 she lived in Ghana, working for the African Review and the Ghanian Times, among others. It was the first time she truly felt at home.
Back in the US, she rejoined the Harlem Writers Guild. James Baldwin loved her poetry. He urged her to write an autobiography. And she did, as six books, covering the following years:
- 1928-1945: I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings (1969)
- 1945-1947: Gather Together in My Name (1974)
- 1949-1955: Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976)
- 1957-1962: The Heart of a Woman (1981)
- 1962-1965: All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
- 1965-1968: A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
She also wrote poetry, essays and scripts for film, stage and television.
In the 1970s she joined the Negro Ensemble Company. Like others in the company, she appeared in “Roots” (1977).
From 1981 onwards she was a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Welcome to Black Women’s History Month 2016!
- In memoriam: Maya Angelou
- Jim Crow
- James Baldwin
- DNA ancestry tests and Black Americans
- Negro Ensemble Company