Poet: Maya Angelou
Date of Birth: 4 April 1928, Missouri, USA
Date of Death: 28 May 2014, North Carolina, USA
Marguerite Annie Johnson, better known as Maya Angelou, was a poet, singer, memoirist and civil rights activist. She published several books of poetry, seven autobiographies and three books of essays. She is also credited with a list of plays, movies and television shows spanning over her lengthy career. She received many awards and more than fifty honorary degrees. Angelou is perhaps best known for her series of seven autobiographies that focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, tells of her life up to the age of seventeen and brought Angelou both international recognition and acclaim.
Angelou became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult, including night club dancer and performer, fry cook, sex worker and journalist. In 1982 she was made the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou discussed aspects of her personal life. She was respected as a spokeswoman for black people and women, and her works are considered a defence of black culture. She made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing and expanding the genre. She centred on the themes of family, identity and racism.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou was the second of two children. In 1931 her parents’ marriage ended and she and her brother were sent to Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother, a prosperous owner of a general store. Four years later, without, warning, their father returned the children to their mother’s care in St. Louis. A year later Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of the family and the man was found guilty and sent to prison for one day. Four days after his release he was murdered, possibly by her uncles. Think that her voice had killed him, Angelou was mute for almost five years.
After Freeman’s murder, Angelou and her brother returned to live with their grandmother. Mrs, Bertha Flowers, a family friend and teacher, is credited with helping Angelou to speak again. It was Flowers that introduced her to literature including Dickens, Shakespeare, Johnson and Poe as well as black female artists such as Anne Spencer and Jessie Fauset.
At 14, Angelou, along with her brother, lived their mother again, this time in Oakland, California. During WW2 she attended the California Labor School and at 16 she became the first black cable car conductor in San Francisco – a job she wanted so much that her mother called it the ‘dream job’. She finished school at 17 and three weeks later gave birth to her son, Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson.)
Angelou married Tosh Angelos in 1951 despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother. She took dance classes and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Ailey and Angelou formed the dance team ‘Al and Rita’ and performed modern dance at black organizations throughout San Francisco.
After her marriage ended in 1954, Angelou danced professionally in the clubs around San Francisco, including the Purple Onion. She changed her name to Maya Angelou as it was distinctive and captured the feel of the calypso music she danced to. She toured Europe during 1954 and 1955 with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She also began the practice of learning the language of the countries she visited. She recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, in 1957.
In 1959 Angelou moved to New York to focus on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and as well as being published for the first time she met major African-American authors such as Rosa Guy, and Julian Mayfield. In 1960 after meeting Martin Luther King Jr and hearing him speak she and John Oliver Killens organized the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1961 Angelou met the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved to Cairo where she worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper The Arab Observer. In 1962, following the break-up of her relationship with Make, she moved to Accra, Ghana so her son Guy could attend college. 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, writer and broadcaster for Radio Ghana and a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times.
Angelou became close friends with Malcom X during his visit to Accra in the early 1960s. She returned to America in 1956 to help him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcom X was assassinated shortly afterwards. Devastated, Angelou joined her brother in Hawaii, and resumed the singing career. On returning to Los Angeles she focussed on her writing career,
In 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march but in a macabre twist of fate he was assassinated on her 40th birthday. She wrote, produced and narrated ‘Blacks, Blues, Black!’, a ten-part series of documentaries about the connection of blues music and black Americans’ African heritage for NET. She also wrote her first autobiography ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ which brought her international acclaim.
Angelou’s film, ‘Georgia, Georgia’, was released in 1972. In 1973 she married Paul de Feu, a Welsh carpenter and ex-husband of Germaine Greer. Over the next decade she worked as a composer, writing movie scores and the singer Roberta Flack, she wrote articles, short stories, poetry, documentaries, TV scripts and was named visiting professor at several colleges and universities.
Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the mini-series Roots in 1977. During the period of her marriage she received a multitude of awards, including over thirty honorary degrees from colleges and universities all over the world. In 1981 Angelou and du Feu divorced.
Angelou returned to the southern United States in 1981, having come to terms with her past there. She accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She was one of a few full-time African American professors and taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics and theology. She taught her last course in 2011 and was planning on teaching another in 2014, and her final speaking engagement with the university was in 2013.
In 1993 Angelou became the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost when she recited her poem ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at the inauguration of Bill Clinton. The resulting fame and recognition broadened her appeal across the boundaries of race and education. In 1995 her poem ‘A Brave and Startling Truth’ commemorated the 50th anniversary of the UN.
In 1996 Angelou achieved her goal of directing a feature film, Down in the Delta with Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes. In 2002 she completed her sixth autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven. In 2008 she campaigned for the Democratic Party in the presidential primaries, supporting Hilary Clinton, until Clinton’s campaign ended, and she put her support behind Barack Obama who went on to win the election and became the first African-American president of the United States.
In 2010, Angelou gifted her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. In 2011 she served as a consultant for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. In 2013 Angelou published the seventh volume of her autobiography ‘Mom & Me & Mom’, she was 85.
Angelou was found dead by her nurse on the morning of 28 May 2014. She was cremated and her ashes scattered.
The Mothering Blackness by Maya Angelou
She came home running
back to the mothering blackness
deep in the smothering blackness
white tears icicle gold plains of her face
She came home running
She came down creeping
here to the black arms waiting
now to the warm heart waiting
rime of alien dreams befrosts her rich brown face
She came down creeping
She came home blameless
black yet as Hagar’s daughter
tall as was Sheba’s daughter
threats of northern winds die on the desert’s face
She came home blameless
©JG Farmer 2019