I AM-Maya Angelou
The Tragic and Triumphant story of Maya Angelou
American poet, memoirist, civil rights activist and actress whose several volumes of autobiography explore the themes of economic, racial, and sexual oppression.
Born as Marguerite Annie Johnson, in St. Louis Missouri on April 4, 1928 – died May 28, 2014, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the age of three her parents separated and sent her to live with her grandmother in Arkansas. She told NPR (National Public Radio), “They put me and my brother on a train without any companionship without any adults and put tags on our arms and said: this child should be delivered to Miss Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas.”
Angelou credits her grandmother for raising her but when she was just seven years old things took a tragic turn. During a trip to St. Louis to visit her mother, she was sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend. She told her brother who told her family, and they had the man arrested. However, he got off with just a single day in jail, but someone took the law into their own hands and beat him to death in retaliation. Terrified by the power of her voice, despite the circumstances, Maya stopped speaking entirely. She was convinced that saying the man’s name had led to his death. She believed her voice to be “a killing machine!’ She became mute and did not speak a word for five years and instead she turned to reading literature and memorizing all the poetry she could find. Langston Hughes, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens were among the great authors. She told The Smithsonian “I believe that my brain reconstructed itself during those years. I believe that the areas in the brain which provide and promote physical speech had nothing to do... and so, I’ve been able to develop a memory quite unusual, which has allowed me to learn languages, really quite a few.” In middle school, a teacher named Mrs. Flowers encouraged her love of poetry and stressed the importance of speaking for herself & Maya left her silence behind and rose to the top of her eighth-grade class. When Maya and her brother became teenagers, their grandmother felt it was too dangerous to live in the south, so she sent them to live with their mother in California. Maya then studied acting and dance.
At 16 years old, she decided that she wanted to be a streetcar conductor simply because she liked the uniforms. But was denied an application because of her race. With her mother’s support Maya sat in the lobby of the office from open to close every day for two weeks until she wore down their discrimination. She became the first female African-American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She also became pregnant and had her one and only child Guy Johnson in 1945.
Aside from waitressing and retail jobs, Maya became a prostitute and eventually ran a brothel to support herself and her son. Even though the experience was not something she was proud of she also was not ashamed to speak and write about it. Recounting the whole experience in the 1974 memoir, Gather Together in My Name. She told NPR “children need to know you can stumble and fumble and fall, see you where you are and get up, forgive yourself, and go on about the business of living your life.”
In the 1950s, Maya started to focus on her dance career and started to perform in clubs around San Francisco. Maya’s dance training and passion for words would save her from the slums proving she was a star destined to make the world her stage. Throughout the 50s, her career took off. Maya was a calypso dancer in nightclubs in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, which inspired her first and last studio album Miss Calypso which was released in 1957. She also spent a year touring Europe, Israel and Egypt as a cast member of the US state department production of Porgy and Bess. She taught modern dance classes along the way.
In 1951 Maya married her first husband, Tosh Angelous a Greek sailor. Her and her husband moved to New York City where she studied African dance for one year under the famed choreographer Pearl Eileen Primus before returning to San Francisco. She retained her married surname even after they eventually divorced three years later. However, she changed Angelo’s to Angelou to make it her own combining her childhood nickname with the last name of her husband.
Shortly after in 1959, she moved to New York City and joined the Harlem Writers Guild and began publishing the first pieces of writing. During the 60s, Maya Angelou was very invested in the civil rights movement. She met Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, and began using her remarkable writing talents to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She worked closely with Dr. King. They worked together to organize and raise funds. She threw herself into the global civil rights movement.
Angelou also began a relationship with a South African freedom fighter. Along with Angelou's son, the couple moved to Cairo Egypt to continue the fight against segregation on grounds other than race. While living in Egypt Angelou wrote for a weekly radical newspaper called the Arab Observer. But, after the relationship ended in 1962 Angelou decided to move to Ghana with her son, who planned to attend college. However just three days after their arrival in the country he broke his neck in a car accident. Luckily, he made a remarkable recovery and was eventually able to go on to attend college.
Angelou began working for the magazine, The African Review as a feature’s editor. Angelou would continue fighting for civil rights even while living abroad, immersing herself in the African-American expatriate community there. During King's historic march on Washington for jobs and freedom, in 1963 she still participated in marching outside the American Embassy in the capital of Ghana in solidarity. She also became close with activists and literary icons like WEB DU Bois and Julian Mayfield & James Baldwin, who weren’t afraid to speak on the inequalities of the black experience in America. Somehow, Angelou also found the time to teach at the University of Ghana’s school of music and drama and do freelance work for the Ghanaian times and radio. It was also during her time in Ghana that she became close with another expatriate living there. It was also during her time in Ghana that she became close with another expatriate living there. Civil rights leader, Malcolm X.
In 1965, Angelou returned to America to help Malcolm X create his new organization of African American unity. Shortly after returning to the United States Angelou was devastated when Malcolm X was assassinated. She briefly moved to Hawaii then to Los Angeles where she witnessed the watts riots. Lastly, she returned to New York, where she poured her restlessness into her writing.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior approached Angelou and asked her to organize a new march. She agreed but before the march could happen, King was assassinated on Angelou’s 40th birthday. For many years after, she refused to celebrate her birthday, instead she would visit King's widow, Carreta Scott King on the anniversary of his death. That year she also wrote, produced and narrated the groundbreaking 10-part documentary series Blacks, Blues, Black! That was about the connection between blues music and Africa.
Inspired by her work and her incredible life, writer James Baldwin and editor Robert Limits begin encouraging and then challenging her to write an autobiography. Initially she was hesitant but in 1969, Maya Angelou published her first autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Maya’s work became an instrumental tool in schools because of its poetic and innovative narrative structure a decade later the book was adapted into a TV movie for CBS. Well she may be best known as a poet and influential memoirist. She also had a groundbreaking career in film and TV.
In March of 1972, the original screenplay “Georgia Georgia” became the first screenplay written by an African American woman to be produced as a movie. She briefly returned to the stage in 1973 for the Broadway play Look Away, which earned her a Tony award nomination. In the 1977, miniseries Roots, Maya played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother. The matriarch from which this dramatization of Alex Haley’s family history from the slave trade to emancipation stems. Two years later she adopted her famous autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” into a television movie. Her next roll came in June of 1993 in poetic justice starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. Maya also penned the verses that made Justice poetic.
Some of her later appearances in front of the camera include: Moesha, Sesame Street and Madea’s Family Reunion. Maya Angelou’s directorial debut in the delta premiered in 1998. She became one of the first African American women to join the director’s guild of America. She continued to act in films well into her 70s making her final appearance in Tyler Perry’s 2006 comedy “Madea's Family Reunion”.
Maya published seven autobiographies in total each spanning distinct chapters of her life. She published the final volume in 2013 at the age of 85. She also won a Grammy Awards for the spoken word recordings of “On the Pulse of Morning”, “Phenomenal Woman” and “A Song Flung Up to Heaven”.
In 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and memorabilia to the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for research in black culture in Harlem saying, “I’ve always wanted my papers to be in the Schomburg ...it’s a magnificent depository of all the information about the African American experience I am grateful that it exists so that all the children black and white, Asian and Spanish speaking, Native Americans and Aleutians can know there is a place where they can go and find the truth of the people's history.”
On February 15, 2011, former President Barack Obama honored Maya Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On May 28, 2014 Maya Angelou passed away in her home in Winston Salem North Carolina she was a woman of many talents, but her breathtaking poetry that has earned her global respect and faith from President Bill Clinton’s inauguration to the 1995 million Man March in Washington. Her words were often called upon to touch and inspire millions, but her legacy continues to inspire millions through her incredible bodies of work and a life of triumphing over tragedy.
“There is no greater agony than bearing a story inside of you.”
I am Maya Angelou
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