By LeMara Perry
A mighty voice, resounded globally through powerful works of literature was has fallen silent. Dr. Maya Angelou, hailed as one of the greatest contemporary writers of the 21st century, passed away on May 28, 2014 in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at the age of 86.
Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson, was the second child born to Bailey and Vivian Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. Her older brother, Bailey, had difficulty pronouncing her name due to his stuttering, so he began to call her “My”, short for “my sister.” After reading a book about the Mayan Indians, Bailey decided to call her Maya instead, and the name stuck with her.
At the age of three, Angelou and her brother were sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother, after their parents divorced. It was in Arkansas that Angelou was faced with the harsh realities of America, in the segregated south. Despite the viciousness, that is racial discrimination, Angelou developed unmovable pride in the African American culture, traditions and values.
At age seven, her mother’s boyfriend raped Angelou. Too ashamed to tell any of the adults in her life, she confided in her brother. When her uncle murdered the man, Angelou felt that her words were responsible for his death, and decided to stop speaking. Angelou remained mute for five years, but developed a love for language.
It was Mrs. Flowers, an educated black woman, who finally got her to speak again, when she was 12. Mrs. Flowers, as Angelou recalled in her children’s book Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship, emphasized the importance of the spoken word, explained the nature of and importance of education, and instilled in her a love of poetry.
In an former interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Angelou highlighted her interaction with Mrs. Flowers. She said,
“Well Mrs. Flowers, a lady in my town, a black lady, had started me to reading when I was about eight. Really reading. I was already reading but she started me to reading in the black school and I read all the books in the black school library. And she had some contact with the white school and she would bring books to me and I would just eat them up. And when I was about eleven-and-a-half she said to me one day – I used to carry a tablet around on which I wrote answers -and she asked me, do you love poetry? So I wrote yes. It was a silly question for Mrs. Flower since she knew I just. She told me, you do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it. Until it comes across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry. And I ran out of her house, I thought I’ll never go back there again. She was trying to take my friend. She came to the store and she would catch me and say you do not love poetry. Not until you speak it. And finally I did take a book of poetry and I went under the house and tried to speak. And could.- NPR (2014)
As a teenager, Angelou attended George Washington High School and was awarded a scholarship to study dance and drama at the San Francisco Labor school, before dropping out and becoming San- Francisco’s first African- American streetcar conductor. Angelou later returned to high school to get her diploma. She gave birth to a son, Guy, few weeks after graduation.
In Singin’ and Swingin and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas, her third autobiography, Angelou says she also, “worked as a shake dancer in night clubs, fry cook in hamburger joints, dinner cook in a Creole restaurant and once had a job in a mechanic’s shop, taking the paint off cars with [her] hands,” to support her child. As a nightclub singer, she took on the moniker “Maya Angelou, combining her childhood nickname and the last name of her former husband.
Angelou’s performing career flourished as she toured Europe performing in Porgy and Bess in 1954 and 1955, performed with Alvin Ailey, as well recorded her first album, Calypso Lady in 1957.
In 1960 Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt and Ghana in 1961. There, she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She also served as a feature editor for The African Review and Ghanaian Times. While in Ghana she met with Malcolm X, which promoted her return to the United States, as she helped him to build his new Organization of African American Unity in 1964. The organization dissolved after Malcolm X was assassinated.
She also served as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed on her birthday in 1968. Devastated by King’s death, Angelou found solace in writing. In 1970, with the help of her friend James Baldwin, Angelou composed her first of six autobiographies, and one of her most famous works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In 2011, Time Magazine placed the book in its list of 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings highlights Angelou from childhood to the birth of her son, which is later followed up by another book, Gather Together in My Name (1974). Other notable books of hers include Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas, an account of her tour in Europe, The Heart of a Woman (1981), a description of Angelou’s acting and writing career in New York and her work for the civil rights movement; and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), which recounts Angelou’s travels in West Africa and her decision to return, without her son, to America.
Aside from her biographies, Angelou was the first African American woman to have her script filmed, as she wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia, which received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for.
Dr. Maya Angelou served on the presidential committees for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She has received the Presidential Medal of Arts, the Lincoln, three Grammy awards and over 50 honorary degrees.
Her words and actions will forever.