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Maya Angelou is an internationally renowned bestselling author, poet, actor, political activist, and first-year inductee into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. She holds over fifty honorary university degrees and is known throughout the world as a spokesperson for human rights, freedom, justice, and peace and has often been the first woman and/or the first African American to obtain certain job opportunities in the United States as well as in Africa.
Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey Johnson, a doorman and naval dietician, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, a nurse, real estate agent, and, later, merchant marine. Angelou had one brother, Bailey Jr., who was often her only ally and strongest supporter.
At the age of three, after the divorce of her parents in St. Louis in 1931, Marguerite and Bailey Jr. were sent to Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their uncle, Willie, in Stamps (Lafayette County). Annie Henderson, owner of the only grocery store in the small town, was a very religious woman who reared the children in a strict manner but always with love, and Uncle Willie had a tendency to spoil them. It is in this atmosphere that Johnson first encountered Southern bigotry and racial disharmony among white customers who called her grandmother by her first name and poked fun at her crippled uncle. She also saw how African Americans defined beauty and self-worth based upon what the white people expressed and displayed during their daily encounters. Later, Angelou suggested that her faith and Christian beliefs—and her strong sense of fair play and inner beauty—stemmed from these experiences.
In 1935, the children were returned to the care of their mother in Chicago, Illinois, but were sent back to Stamps after it was discovered that Johnson had been sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend, who was later found dead. The small girl felt guilty and believed that her voice had caused the death of the rapist, so she became mute and remained so for four years. It was at this time that she turned inward and began to comfort herself with the written word. A teacher, Beulah Flowers, befriended her and introduced her to classical writings by such authors as Langston Hughes (whom she was to meet eventually in New York), Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, Arna Bontemps, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. It was after reading about their lives and listening to Flowers’s discussion of them and other matters that Johnson began to speak again.
Her life in Stamps helped to mold her both in a spiritual and activist manner, as is evident in her rebelling against the black principal of her elementary school when she refused to heed his warning not to sing the “Negro National Anthem” (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) rather than “God Bless America” during the graduation assembly when the white superintendent of public schools and other white officials were present. She was appalled that the superintendent spoke to the class about their learning trades so that they might remain in servitude to the majority race. She was insulted at the inference that those were the only kinds of job opportunities available for educated African Americans. Soon afterward, the two children once again moved to be with their mother, Vivian—this time to San Francisco, California.
Life in California was far different from their experiences in rural Arkansas. More educational and job opportunities were available. In 1944, Johnson dropped out of high school to become the first black cable car conductor in San Francisco; then she returned to Mission High School and earned a scholarship to study dance, drama, and music at San Francisco’s Labor School, where she learned about the progressive ideologies that may have served as a foundation for her later social and political activism. However, after only one sexual encounter for experimentation’s sake, earlier in the year, she gave birth to her son, Claude (who later changed his name to Guy) three weeks after graduation. This was to be her only child and the conclusion of her only educational endeavors as a student. Henceforth, she has been lecturer, teacher, professor, analyst, but never a student in any educational institutional setting.
Leaving home at age sixteen with a newborn child, in order to support herself and her son, she worked in many capacities: cocktail waitress, dancer, cook, and brothel madam—all before the age of twenty-five. She has used these life experiences to serve as themes and roadmaps around which to base her most poignant verses, plays, vignettes, and autobiographies. Her writings are rich in humor and vigor, using her life stories to teach others about survival and joy.
In 1949, at the age of twenty-one, she married a Greek sailor, Tosh Angelos. Divorced in 1952, she borrowed a variation of his surname and adopted her brother’s nickname for her, Maya, a shortening of Marguerite, and later legally became Maya Angelou. Since becoming a nightclub singer at the Purple Onion club in San Francisco, this has been her professional name. Her singing and dancing career took her to Europe with the opera, Porgy and Bess,in 1954–55, and she studied modern dance under the tutelage of such greats as Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey, appeared in television shows, and made her first record album, called Calypso Heat Wave, in 1957. A composer of poems and song lyrics since her teen years, she continued to develop her writing skills as she performed. She and her son found themselves on the east coast at the end of the decade.
In New York City, she later married South African freedom fighter and civil rights advocate Vusumzi Make in 1960. They moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she became editor of the weekly newspaper, The Arab Observer, and Guy began elementary school. Maya Angelou continually took writing and teaching positions as she and Guy adjusted to African lifestyles. She and her son left Egypt for Ghana as her second marriage was coming to an end in 1963. She became an assistant administrator at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama and later a feature editor for The African Review, as well as a feature writer for The Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company, where her voice was also used for public affairs announcements.
While residing in Africa, she became fluent in several languages: Fanti (a West African language), French, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic. She also met important allies such as Malcolm X, with whom she evolved a great friendship. Upon returning to the United States in 1964 to help him build the newly established Organization of African American Unity, Angelou turned to the Civil Rights Movement, especially after his assassination, and at the request of Martin Luther King Jr., she became the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was assassinated on her birthday in 1968.
It was noted novelist James Baldwin who helped Maya to overcome her grief by developing her writing skills as she began to pen her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which details her childhood growing up in Stamps, with brief episodes in St. Louis, Chicago, and San Francisco; it was first published in 1970 and has since been translated in over ten languages. In 1972, her Georgia, Georgia, was the first screenplay by an African American to be filmed.
Winning much critical acclaim and becoming a national figure always in demand for public appearances to read her poems or to dramatize her screenplays, she continued to maintain her political activism. Her body of published works includes six autobiographies (which have been collected into one volume), numerous poetry collections, a book of essays, four plays, a screenplay, and a cookbook. Among her many works are Gather Together in my Name (1974), Singin’ and Swinin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1980), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung up to Heaven (2002), and Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (2004).
The running themes in all of her works, both about herself and about the world, deal with the individual’s wish and right to survive in a non-hostile world. Believing that hatred and racism destroy that which is good and basic in humankind, she struggles to provide simple, down-to-earth solutions to these problems which threaten the world.
In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a Welsh writer and cartoonist who traveled with her to an Arkansas appearance and who was previously married to activist and author, Germaine Greer. This was to be Angelou’s longest marriage. She never speaks publicly about her marriages, but it has been suggested by those closest to her that this was her happiest. They bought and restored a home in California. Uncomfortable in the setting, she and du Feu divorced in 1980 but remain friends.
Angelou was nominated for a 1977 Emmy Award for her portrayal of Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in Alex Haley’s television miniseries, Roots. She has been invited by three past presidents—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton—to serve, respectively, as board member for the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman, and as a poet to write an inauguration poem for 1993. The poem which she penned for Clinton’s inauguration is titled “On the Pulse of the Morning.”
Angelou still is very active in dramatic and documentary circles, as she has held the Reynolds Professor of American Studies chair at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, since 1981. She has appeared on such national television shows as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and the Tavis Smiley Show. Her Hallmark Greeting cards line, called Life Mosaic, with subjects based mainly upon such themes as love and sharing, peace and Biblical faith, have given her an even broader audience appeal. The movie Poetic Justice (1993), features poetry readings written by Angelou and performed by Janet Jackson; in addition, she directed Down in the Delta (1998) and had a starring role in the 2006 production of Tyler Perry’s Medea’s Family Reunion, along with Cecily Tyson, Lynn Whitfield, and other noted actors.
Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. On February 15, 2011, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Although not born in Arkansas, Angelou is one of Arkansas’s most notable and recognizable literary figures and represents, in her writings and her outlook on life, the spiritual and faith-based upbringing that has long been a mainstay of Arkansas culture.
For additional information:Angelou, Maya. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Maya Angelou. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Gillespie, Marcia, ed. Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
Lisandrelli, Elaine. Maya Angelou: More Than a Poet. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.
Patricia Washington McGrawLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 1/17/2012
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