Dr. Maya Angelou, award winning author, poet, actress is among her many career titles. She was born with the name Marguerite Johnson on April 4th, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is one of her most famous pieces of work that describes her life in her younger years. At a young age, her parents separated which resulted in her and her older brother is sent to live with her grandmother in Arkansas.
At the age of seven, Angelou was molested by her mother’s boyfriend at the time. She gained the courage to tell her older brother about what her mother’s boyfriend had done. A week later, her mother’s boyfriend was found dead. Many allege that he was killed by her uncles out of vengeance for what he had done to her. Unable to cope with such a horrific and traumatic experience, the young seven-year-old, went into a five-year period of complete silence. During this prolonged mute, she developed a love for literature. Angelou finally began to speak again at the age of twelve with the help of a someone dear to her by the name of Mrs. Flowers. Angelou went on to write a children’s book Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship. In this book, Angelou shares how much of an impact Mrs. Flowers had on her from exposing her to her new profound love of spoken word and written poetry and the importance of being educated.
While in high school, Angelou accepted a scholarship to California Labor School in San Francisco where she studied dance and acting. At the age of seventeen, she gave birth to her son, whose father was from a short-lived high school relationship. In order to support herself and her newborn son, she worked as a streetcar conductor becoming the first African American and first female to hold this position. In her third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Angelou shares how she worked several different jobs to make ends meet for the family of two.
In 1950, she married a Greek sailor by the name of Tosh Angelos. After a few years, the two divorced. Shortly after, she was a featured in the Purple Onion cabaret as a singer who gained the attention of many scouts. As her career began to take shape, she began re-branding herself. Using a childhood nickname and part of her ex-husbands’ last name, she began to refer to herself as “Maya Angelou”. Angelou earned a role in the Porgy and Bess production tour, and Calypso Heat Wave. She later released her first album, Miss Calypso. Along with her long resume of accolades, Angelou earned a Tony Award nomination and an Emmy Award nomination. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild which is where she met writer James Baldwin. She was
In the 1960s Angelou moved abroad to work as a freelance writer and editor first living in Egypt, and then Ghana. After returning to the United States in 1964, she published her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which was a nationwide success and her most famous work. Out of her 7 published autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was her bestselling piece but was also the one of the most publicly controversial. Upon its release, the autobiography was banned from many schools because of its topics of race, violence, and sex.
Maya Angelou took fifteen years to write the A Song Flung up to Heaven to one of her last autobiographies. When asked why it took so long to be completed and published, she told interviewers that she didn’t know how to account for four years of hurt to not only her but the entire African American community and yet remain encouraging. In this volume, she covers the assassination of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the Watts riot, and her divorce.
While writing her volumes of autobiographies, Maya Angelou also had a career in film and author of children’s books. She became the first African American woman to produce a screenplay. In 1977, she was an Emmy nominee for her role in Roots. Poetry used in the 1993 film Poetic Justice was written by Angelou, she also starred in the film in the role of Aunt June. In 1993 and 1995, she also starred in the films There Are No Children Here and How to Make an American Quilt. In between film and writing her autobiographies, Angelou, released a number of poems. Her most popular was The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou and Phenomenal Woman.
Maya Angelou is ranked among the literary greats of the world. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which was her first autobiography published in 1970. After years of being banned from schools around the country, later became paramount to the discussion of African American literature. It tells her life story, brings controversial topics to the surface, as well as exposes readers to great writing examples. Her two poems Still I Rise and Phenomenal Woman is of favorites for many, especially women. They are both very relatable poems. Still, I Rise encourages readers to not allow the stress of the world to consume you and break you down but continue to rise and confidently defeat whatever obstacle may come. Phenomenal Woman is a poem about self-esteem. It empowers women to be confident and self-loving regardless of who else may not your value. All of which are relevant to contemporary society and arguably more relevant than ever. There is an alarmingly increasing rate of young women who are seeking cosmetic surgery to change their physical appearance. All 3 pieces reflect on this matter; from a person’s upbringing and childhood experiences to their mental and spiritual health.
Dr. Maya Angelou has achieved more in than many could ever dream of. Being able to juggle the role as an African American single mother, author, actress, director, singer, poet, civil rights activist, writer, dancer, editor, essayist and playwright, all in one lifetime is unfathomable to many and a lifetime inspiration to all.
Biography.com Editors. Maya Angelou. Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 27 Feb. 2018, www.biography.com/people/maya-angelou-9185388.
History.com Editors. Maya Angelou Is Born. History.com, A&E Television Networks, 13 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/maya-angelou-is-born.
Horton, Emily. Maya Angelou. Weapons in the War of 1812 | NCpedia, NC Government & Heritage Library, 2012, www.ncpedia.org/Biography/angelou-maya.
Maya Angelou. Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/maya-angelou.
Still I Rise. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, by Henry Louis Gates and Valerie A. Smith, Norton, 2014, p. 946.