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Maya Angelou: how she used her voice to help others find their own

A Black-American writer, poet, singer, feminist, and civil rights activist whose work was a ground-breaking look at trauma, racism, and identity

Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014) was an internationally renowned author, poet, and performer, as well as a pioneering activist for African-American and women's rights. She was best known for her bestselling memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first of a seven-volume series that offers a ground-breaking look at trauma, racism, and identity. She witnessed and participated in some of the most relevant periods of contemporary American History: the Great Depression, segregation and desegregation, the post-Second World War era, the Vietnam War, and the rise of civil rights movements; from working with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X in Ghana, and mentoring Oprah. She lived thoroughly passionately and used her voice to inspire and empower generations. 


You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

(first verse of the poem Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, 1978)


Childhood and Adolescence: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Annie Johnson in Saint Louis, Missouri on April 4th, 1928. “Maya” had been a nickname given by her older brother Bailey.


After the divorce of her parents in 1931, the two siblings went to live with their grandmother and uncle in Stamps, Arkansas. She was raised according to the strict Christian values common in the rural South at the time, all in the context of an unprecedented economic crisis that was particularly tough in the Southern states -the Great Depression- and while black communities were still facing glaring racial injustices such as segregation.

At the age of 7, during a visit to her mother’s house, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was later jailed and then killed when released. As she explained in her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), and in several interviews years later, she believed that her confession of the trauma caused that man’s death, and she decided to become mute for five years in fear that her words would kill anyone else.


Through these years of silence, she developed a passion for literature. Devoured prose and poetry, and memorized every book she could. She began writing as well. A family friend saw the little girl's enthusiasm for literature and potential and told her one day that she wouldn’t really like poetry until she recited it out loud. What a clever friend. When Angelou decided to speak again, she had a lot to say.


She moved back in with her mother when she was ready to enroll in high school; they lived in Oakland, California. Her artistic interests expanded to drama and dancing, and her early professional experiences kicked off as remarkable: she became the first African American woman to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She eventually graduated and gave birth to her only child, Guy Johnson, the fruit of a one-night stand.


Gather Together In My Name

Angelou worked many jobs to support herself and her son: waitress, dancer, cook, and even sex worker, all before the age of twenty-five. These experiences coloured her poetry and stories, reflecting the challenges of navigating a white-dominated society in the United States following the Second World War.


Singin’ And Swingin’ And Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas 

Angelou’s passionate spirit ignited a youth of adventures. In fact, her kaleidoscopic and prolific life later earned her the nickname Renaissance Woman. She married multiple times and traveled around the world guided by her talents, following her artistic passions, and at times, also husbands.


She adopted Maya Angelou as a professional name and changed it legally before divorcing her divorce with her first husband, Tosh Angelos. Angelou was noted for her talents as a singer and dancer, particularly in the calypso and cabaret styles. In the 1950s, she performed professionally around the U.S., Europe, and Northern Africa. She wrote her lyrics and poems and continued honing her writing in different formats. At the same time, she slowly got more involved in black community support systems in New York, such as the Harlem Writers Guild. There she met James Baldwin and other important writers. During this time, Angelou had the opportunity to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. Inspired by his message, she decided to join the struggle for civil rights.


The Heart of a Woman

Martin Luther King Jr., a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a prominent African American advocacy organization leader, recruited Angelou as his northern coordinator in 1960. This marked the beginning of many years of active participation in Angelou's fight for civil rights. After her work with Martin Luther King Jr., she moved to Cairo, Egypt with her then-romantic partner Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter and civil rights advocate. She became a writer and editor of the weekly Arab Observer.


All God’s Children Need Shoes 

In 1962, she and her son left Egypt to move to Ghana, where she met and befriended Malcolm X. She continued collaborating as a writer and editor with several newspapers and broadcasting companies and became an assistant administrator at the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana.


She returned to the U.S. encouraged by Malcolm X to work in his Organization of African American Unity and actively rejoin the movement for civil rights. However, Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965 dealt Angelou a severe blow. And so did the death of Martin Luther King Jr. years later, who was shot on April 4th, 1968. The same day of Angelou’s fortieth birthday. His death impacted her life so much that she did not celebrate her birthday for years.


After these tragic events, her friend and novelist James Baldwin encouraged her to write an autobiography. 


Her life through books

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou illustrates her coming-of-age and describes the burden of racial segregation and how her love for literature helped her overcome trauma and racism. The use of characters, dialogue, and plot within her autobiographies was innovative and caught the eye of readers worldwide. 


The book has been translated into numerous languages and has sold over a million copies since then. Maya Angelou’s autobiography is collected in a seven-volume series: Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry like Christmas; The Heart of a Woman (1981), and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up To Heaven, and Me & Mom & Me (2013). Through her work, she turns her attention to the lives of black people in America from the time of slavery to the rebellious 1960s.


As Angelou wrote her autobiographies, poetry volumes, and essay collections, she continued her career in film and television. She was the first Black woman to have a screenplay (Georgia, Georgia) produced in 1972.


Angelou had a distinctive and compelling voice. She sold many records of her poetry readings and in 1993, achieved great notoriety when she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, becoming the first black female poet to participate in a presidential inauguration. The poem calls for peace, racial and religious harmony, and social justice for people of different origins, incomes, genders, and sexual orientations. It recalls the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She encouraged the administration to progress with the verse “Lift up your eyes upon/this day breaking for you./Give birth again/to the dream”.


A long legacy

All throughout her life, her painful experiences made her advance deeply into her writing and the civil rights movement influenced her work. Through finding her voice, she helped others raise their own. 

She was internationally acclaimed and awarded for her work, literature, and activism by many organizations. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.


After a period of poor health, Angelou was found dead by her caregiver on May 28, 2014, in North Carolina. She and her work continue to be commemorated internationally.

In June 2014, the city of Stamps renamed its only park in her honor. On April 7, 2015, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Angelou's honor. In January 2021, Mattel launched a Barbie with Angelou's image as part of its "Inspirational Women" series. On January 10, 2022, Angelou became the first black woman to appear in a U.S. quarter as part of the U.S. Mint's American Women Quarters program.


Continue learning more about Maya Angelou’s life and legacy through her autobiographical books and the Peabody winner documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.


Sources

Angelou, M. (2009). I know why the caged bird sings. Random House.

Angelou, M. (1993). On the Pulse of Morning. Random House.

Caged Bird Legacy LLC. (2023, October 11). Maya Angelou: Maya Angelou - Caged Bird

legacy. The Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou. https://www.mayaangelou.com/

Copeland, S. (2021, January 14). Mattel reveals Barbie Doll inspired by Maya Angelou .

Hoehne, K. (2024, January 31). Explore dr. Maya Angelou’s life through her books. PBS.

Mattel. (n.d.). Barbie Maya Angelou Doll. Mattel Creations. https://creations.mattel.com/es-

Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). Maya Angelou: Quotes, poems, Facts & Her Legacy. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/articles/renaissance-woman-maya-angelou

Saunders, M. (2015, March 4). Postal Service Previews Maya Angelou Stamp Image. United States Postal Service . https://about.usps.com/news/national- releases/2015/pr15_015.htm

U.S. Mint. (2022, February 10). Maya angelou quarter: American Women Quarters. United


 

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