Black History Month: Maya Angelou

Marguerite Annie Johnson, commonly referred to as Maya Angelou, was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist. She is best known for her 1969 autobiography,I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Her attributions to the world have made her one of the most influential voices of our time.

Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, MO. Growing up, she had a rough childhood facing discrimination and the divorce of her parents. Angelou was sent to live with her grandmother along with her brother. During one of her visits to see her mother, Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. She was only eight years old. Angelou, traumatized by the experience, stopped talking for more than five years.

Shortly after, she returned to her grandmother’s where she started speaking again. A local teacher introduced Angelou to figures in literature such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. The teacher was able to break her silence by challenging her to read poetry. It was through this experience that Angelou discovered her love for literature.

During WWII, Angelou relocated to San Francisco, where she attended the California Labor School. At the age of 16, she became the first Black female cable car conductor, although she retained the position for a brief time. She returned to school but had to graduate early to give birth to her son. Even though she faced hardships of becoming a single mother, working to support her son, she had not given up on her dreams. 

In 1951, Angelou took modern dance classes and met dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. The duo partner up to perform and sing acts through San Francisco. She was a part of the touring production of the musical “Porgy and Bess” throughout Europe. She was also featured in off-Broadway productions and even released her first album called “Miss Calypso.” 

In 1959, Angelou moved to New York City to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she was published for the first time and met major African American authors including John Henrik Clarke and Rosa Guy. 

Wanting to connect with her African culture, Angelou moved to Africa in the 60s where she became the editor of The Arba Observer, feature editor for The African Review, and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. She also was an instructor and assistant administer at the University of Gahan’s School of Music and Drama.

Angelou returned to America in 1964, intending to help Minister Malcolm X build his Organization of African American Unity. Malcolm was assassinated shortly after her arrival and his ideas died with him, but Angelou continued to involve herself in television production and civil rights movements.

She worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and under his request, became the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This organization played a role in civil rights movements as it “successfully staged a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery Alabama’s segregated bus system” (nps.gov) and also helped coordinate civil rights protests in the South.

After King’s assassination, Angelou was devastated and she started writing to find solace. She began working on the book that is today known as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” This book tells her story from her childhood to the birth of her son. It was published in 1970 and achieved enormous success.

In the following years, she attracted a large international audience which only inspired her even more. She continued her passions and wrote the screenplay for “Georgia, Georgia,” which was the first movie written by an African American Woman to be filmed.

In 1993, Angelou was given the honor to recite her poem “On the Pules Of Moring” at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton. In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama, which is the highest civilian honor in the U.S. 

Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at the age of 86. Her life story is remembered as one of the most influential voices of our current time. She is someone who reminds us to never give up and to face our hardships head-on. Angelou’s ability to stay strong throughout her early years makes her a hero we will never forget. Through her words, she changed the way people viewed the world by always fighting for what she believed in. 

“But above all, she was a storyteller – and her greatest stories were true,” Obama said.