“The Black Woman’s Poet Laureate”
Poet, storyteller, civil rights activist, autobiographer and educator, Maya Angelou was an influential advocate for many in her generation. Perhaps best known for her fiction-themed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Dr. Angelou survived a dysfunctional childhood to become an important figure in the areas of literature, education and politics in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Her many publishing credits included seven autobiographies, three books of essays and several volumes of poetry.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in April, 1928, in St. Louis, at age three she was nicknamed Maya by an older brother as he tried to say “my sister.” When her parents’ marriage disintegrated when she was 3, she and her brother were sent to live at their grandparents’ comfortable and secure home in Arkansas. Yet the respite was short since her father arrived to return the children to their mother in St. Louis where sadly, a year later the girl was molested by her mother’s boyfriend. Her assailant was later murdered but trauma left the child mute for several years. As she wrote later: “I thought my voice killed him… And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.” At this time Angelou developed her memory, imagination, and love of literature.
However, the attack meant she and her brother returned to their grandparents. There they attended school and Maya not only learned to speak again, but was introduced to great literary figures as well as important Black authors.
A few years later when the children went to live with their mother in California, Maya continued her schooling then at age 16 got what seemed to be a “dream job.” As the first Black woman to be a San Francisco streetcar conductor she found success, though her life was greatly altered as at age 17 when she gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson.
In 1952 Maya married a Greek man, Anastasios Angelopulos, and the duo began to perform locally as dancers in various venues but the marriage failed two years later. Then Angelou continued to perform in local clubs and also took Maya Angelou as her professional name, combining a shorted form of her ex- husband’s name with her childhood nickname.
Then in 1959 as she moved to New York City she began her writing career, encouraged by new friends—other Black writers and novelists. She also performed as an actress in local plays.
Then she and her son accompanied her partner, a South African activist, to travel to Africa where in Ghana she taught at a local university, wrote for newspapers and worked with government radio.
In 1965 as she returned to the U.S. where she resumed friendships and also her writing. Then after the traumatic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 she received support from a prominent Black novelist as well as a publisher to begin to her autobiography. The result was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Told in first person and using techniques often found in fiction, the story begins with three year old Maya was as she was sent to live with her grandparents and ends when she gave birth to her son age 17. It formed the “coming of age” story of a young black girl who described her experiences.
The title and frequent theme is from a poem by late 19th century Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first Black authors who achieved an international reputation. In the story the caged bird is a symbol of a chained slave.
One of the stanzas ran:
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.”
The premise of Angelou’s book was freedom, as the caged bird—though created for freedom—can only sing about it from behind the bars. This book was the first of a series of continued autobiographical accounts, as she related her life experiences.
After publication of her first book, Angelou continued to write, produce films and compose music for major artists. In 1977 she took a supporting role in the TV miniseries Roots, winning an Emmy nomination for her role.
Then in 1981 as she settled in North Carolina she began an association with Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem where she became one of the institutions’ few Black academics. Considering herself a “a teacher who writes,” Angelou also began to tour as a lecturer in the 1990s. Though she lacked academic credentials or advanced degrees, she had become so respected she was known as “Dr. Angelou” to her students.
Then in 1993 she was honored to be able to participate in the inauguration of President Bill Clinton as she read her poem On the Pulse of Morning. Her recording of the work brought her a Grammy Award. Then in June, 1995 her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” commemorated the U.N.’s 50th Anniversary.
By early 2014 she suffered poor health and had to cancel speaking dates. She died in May and her son described how though she was in pain from respiratory weakness, “She left this mortal plane with no loss of acuity and no loss in comprehension.” Angelou was honored with memorial services in several cities – an indication of wide spread respect.
Perhaps one reason for her popularity with readers was how they treasured her practical life guiding quotes. In fact, in the words of one source “she was known for her inspiring words that shed light onto the beauty and injustices of the world.” Also, a major news magazine listed several of her best quotes: In a 2012 interviews she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Another bit of advice from a 2009 essay: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” In the same volume she also related a bit of advice: “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.