Angelou’s creative talent and genius cut across many arenas. One of the most celebrated authors in the United States, Angelou wrote with an honesty and grace that captured the specificity of growing up a young black girl in the rural South.
Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey, a doorman and naval dietician, and Vivian, a registered nurse, professional gambler, and rooming house and bar owner, Angelou spent her early years in Long Beach, California. When she was three, her parents divorced, and she and her four-year-old brother, Bailey Jr., were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their maternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou recalls in vivid detail this lonely and disconcerting journey to Stamps.
Under the watchful and loving gaze of her grandmother, Angelou lived a life defined by staunch Christian values and her grandmother’s unwavering determination, endurance, and resiliency. Owner of the only general store in town, Annie Henderson was a respected and successful businesswoman. During the Great Depression, she provided financial support for several black and white members of the community.
In 1936 Angelou and Bailey were sent to St. Louis to live with their mother. Urban city life proved to be a revelatory experience for Angelou. She needed to acclimate herself not only to the bustling metropolis of St. Louis, but also to her maternal family, most importantly her own mother. Like Annie Henderson, Vivian Baxter was a dominant figure in Angelou’s life. In Angelou’s eyes, her mother—in addition to being beautiful, smart, and funny—had a no-nonsense attitude about life and living. As Angelou writes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow…. My mother’s beauty literally assailed me.”
Yet Angelou’s time in St. Louis was marked by the most traumatic experience of her life. When she was eight years old, her mother’s boyfriend, Mr Freeman, raped her. In response to this experience, Angelou refused to speak for several years. In the hopes that change and familiarity would be good for Angelou, she and her brother were sent back to Stamps. With the love and encouragement of her family, but in particular because of the bond she forged with Henderson’s friend, Mrs Flowers, Angelou eventually reclaimed her voice. Mrs Flowers encouraged Angelou to discover the power of the written word coupled with the spoken voice to effect change.
In 1940, upon Angelou’s graduation from the Lafayette Training School, where she was at the top of her class, her mother again sent for her and her brother. The children moved to San Francisco. Once again, Angelou advanced in school, and she won a scholarship to attend evening classes at the California Labor School. Studying drama and dance, Angelou began to participate in the art forms that she would soon use to launch her first professional career.
First, however, her father encouraged her to spend the summer in southern California with him and his new fiancée, Dolores Stockland. Her stay in their home ended abruptly after she and Stockland got into a violent altercation, which resulted in Angelou’s running away to live in a junkyard with homeless children for several weeks. The lessons learned during her time with these children would serve as a guiding principle in how she lived her life in later years. As Angelou states in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “Odd that the homeless children, the silt of war frenzy, could initiate me into the brotherhood of man…. The lack of criticism evidenced by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance for my life.”
The year 1944 began Angelou’s more pronounced efforts to lead an independent life. After launching what seemed to be a one-woman campaign to end the discriminatory hiring practices of the trolley cars in San Francisco, Angelou became the first black streetcar conductor in the city. At the age of sixteen, Angelou became pregnant and gave birth to her son, Clyde Bailey Johnson, nicknamed Guy. In 1945 Angelou graduated from Mission High School in San Francisco. For the next several years, Angelou worked as a cook, a cocktail waitress, a dancer, a dishwasher, a barmaid, a madam, and a prostitute. After a brief trip back to Stamps, Angelou returned to live with her mother in California. In 1952 she married Tosh Angelos, an ex-sailor of Greek origin. According to Mary Jane Lupton in Maya Angelou a Critical Companion, “Maya…was married and divorced in one short, unhappy interval.”
During this time, Angelou’s dancing career took an upward turn, and she began to use the stage name of Maya Angelou. Her performances attracted the attention of producers of the touring company of Porgy and Bess, the first all-black opera, written by George Gershwin. From 1954 to 1955, Angelou appeared in a European tour of the opera, which was sponsored by the United States Department of State. Her travels were cut short, however, when she received word that her son had contracted an incurable skin disease. Angelou returned to the States.
In 1959 Angelou and Guy moved to Brooklyn, and she rediscovered her passion for writing. As a member of the Harlem Writer’s Guild, she received constructive criticism from other writers that would prove to be invaluable to her later work. The nation was in a time of critical change. African Americans were demanding an end to segregation and other Jim Crow practices. It was a time of bus boycotts, sit-ins, the March on Washington, landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1957, the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 and the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. During this burgeoning of the civil rights movement, Angelou met many influential figures, including Bayard Rustin, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Vusumi Make, a South African freedom fighter who would soon be her second husband.
Not only was Angelou perfecting her writing, but also her introduction to these individuals sparked in her a willingness and need to participate more actively in the civil rights movement. In 1960 she helped organize and performed in the Cabaret for Freedom, an off-Broadway musical benefit for SCLC. In the same year, she appeared in another off-Broadway play, Jean Genet’s The Blacks, a dramatic indictment of race and theater art. In that year, the play won an Obie Award. Not long after, at the request of Bayard Rustin, Angelou served a brief appointment as northern coordinator for the SCLC. She also became an active member of the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage (CAWAH).
After Angelou and Make were married, she, Make, and her son moved to Cairo, Egypt. She served as associate editor of the Arab Observer, an English-language news weekly. After her marriage to Make ended, Angelou and Guy moved to Accra, Ghana, where she served as assistant administrator of the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies, in Legon-Accra. She also worked as a features editor for the African Review and as a journalist at the Ghanaian Times.
Angelou returned to the United States in the mid-1960s. Her career as a writer began to flourish. She wrote a two-act drama, The Clawing Within, and a two-act musical, Adjoa Amissah. In 1968 she wrote and narrated Black, Blues, Black, a ten-part series for National Educational Television highlighting the role of African culture in America. Having been encouraged by her friend the author James Baldwin to write an autobiography, Angelou first gained notice in 1970 as the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She emerged during a time when writing by black women proliferated. Among her peers were Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker.
Angelou’s autobiography received critical acclaim. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for approximately two years. The second volume of her autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, was published in 1974. A third volume, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, was published in 1976. Angelou was experimenting with the autobiographical form, but also with poetry. Published in 1971, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1975 and 1978, Angelou wrote two collections of poetry, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well and And Still I Rise. The Heart of a Woman, volume four of Angelou’s autobiography, was published in 1981. In 1986, Angelou published volume five of her autobiographical series, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. In 2002, a sixth volume, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, was published.
Angelou’s poetic output seemed boundless. In 1983 she published Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing and in 1990 I Shall Not Be Moved. My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me and The Complete Poems of Maya Angelou appeared along with Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women in 1994. At the request of President-elect Bill Clinton, Angelou wrote and delivered the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at his inauguration in 1993. Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, a collection of essays was published in 1993, and in 1997 Even the Stars Look Lonesome, another book of essays. Later forays were in children’s literature. Angelou wrote several such books and contributed to others. They include Mrs Flowers: A Moment of Friendship (1986), Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (1993), Soul Looks Back in Wonder (1993), My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (1994), and Kofi and His Magic (1996). Critics laud Angelou’s autobiographical writings. None of her works has received more critical attention, however, than her first autobiographical endeavor.
Beginning in the 1970s she participated in numerous theater and film productions. In 1972 she became the first black woman to have an original screenplay produced, Georgia, Georgia. In 1973 she appeared in the Broadway show, Look Away, and earned a Tony nomination. She was honored with an Emmy nomination in 1977 for her performance in Alex Haley’s miniseries Roots. In 1979 she helped adapt her seminal autobiography for a television movie. She wrote the poetry for and starred in the motion picture Poetic Justice in 1993. In 1995 she starred in How to Make an American Quilt. In 1998 she directed and starred in Down in the Delta.
Throughout her writing and theatrical career, Angelou has taught at various colleges and universities. She has held appointments at the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Kansas, writer-in-residence; distinguished visiting professor at Wake Forest University; Wichita State University; and California State University. Her permanent academic home in the early twenty-first century was Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina, where Angelou was the first person to be the Reynolds Professor of American Studies.
Angelou received many accolades and awards, including honorary degrees, lifetime achievement awards, foundation awards, and a Presidential Medal. Maya Angelou’s re-creation of the autobiography enhanced the breadth and scope of the American literary canon.
Editor’s note: this extract from Black Women in America (2nd Ed.) was first published on the OUPblog on 28 September 2006. Maya Angelou has since passed away aged 86 on 28 May 2014.
Feature image by Brian Stansberry