In eleventh grade, I had my very first experience with Maya Angelou’s work. Our teacher, Mr. Martin, assigned to us “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” We were to read it and do a book report on it. English was my favorite subject in school, so this assignment was something I actually wanted to do! I had no previous knowledge about the book, but had heard many wonderful things about it’s author. After arriving home from school that day, I immediately started reading it. ( Did I mention that I LOVE to read?) I didn’t get very far. There is a specific point in the book where she tells of an experience of sexual abuse. At first, I couldn’t get any farther, the part in the book just having this enormous effect on me. I didn’t want to pick it up and read it. The book had hit home with some of my own personal experiences, and I just couldn’t do it. So.. the next day, I went to the English teacher and spoke with him privately about my wish not to read the book. I asked to be assigned something else. He did try to explain to me that if I could get past that particular part, it’s truly a wonderful read. I told him I would take his word for it.
After a couple of months passed and I had completed my English assignment and had read a different book… something in the back of my mind started to wonder if I hadn’t been wrong about Maya Angelou’s book after all. A lot of my other classmates had read it and loved it. So, I checked it out from the local library. Once I started reading it again, and got past the part I had previously had trouble with, I really just devoured the book. It was and IS a FANTASTIC book! I am so glad that I had changed my mind about reading it! Since then, I have become a huge fan of Maya Angelou’s work and I am excited to share with you all what I have learned about her during my research!
Her Early Years
Dr. Maya Angelou, originally named Marguerite Ann Johnson, was born on April 4th, 1928 in Saint Louis, Missouri. She was born to Bailey Johnson, a doorman and Navy dietician, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a real estate agent, trained surgical nurse, and later, Merchant Marine.
At a young age, her parents’ rocky marriage ended. Maya and her brother where sent alone by train to live with their father’s mother, Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas. They lived with their grandmother for four years until, their father appeared unexpectedly and uprooted Maya and her brother Bailey Jr. again, this time returning them to their mother’s care in Saint Louis.
At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Maya was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed what had happened to her brother, who then told the rest of the family. According to what I found on Wikipedia, Freeman was found guilty, but was only jailed for one day! I can’t even fathom how Maya must of felt at him being released from jail so quickly. It had to have been frightening to say the very least.
Four days after Freeman was released, he was found murdered. The whole experience was so traumatic to the young Maya, that she became mute, thinking her voice, naming him, had killed him. She felt her voice could kill others too. She remained mute for nearly 5 years. Shortly after Freeman’s murder, Maya and her brother were sent back to Stamps to live with their grandmother.
With guidance from a teacher and family friend, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Maya began speaking again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, and Douglas, as well as introducing her to African American female artists like Frances Harper, Jessie Fauset, and Anne Spencer.
When Angelou turned 13, she and her brother returned to live with their mother, who was residing in San Fransisco at the time. She went on to study dance and drama, on a scholarship at San Fransisco’s Labor School. At 14, she dropped out to become the very first African American female cable car conductor. Maya later finished school and gave birth to a son at 17, naming him Guy. Now the young, artistic, and intelligent woman had another road ahead of her… that of a young single mother.
Early Adulthood and Career
As a young, single mother, Angelou supported herself and child by working as a cook and waitress. However, she had a strong passion for poetry, music, dance and performance and it would soon take center stage in her life.
During 1954 and 1955, Dr. Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera, Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Al Ailey on television variety shows, and also recorded her first album, which she named “Callypso Lady.”
In 1958, she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild and delved very deeply into her writing. Although her writing was her main concentration, Maya had also managed to find time to act in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom. Quite a busy woman!!!! And what an amazing life so far!
In 1960, Dr. Angelou and her son Guy, moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she worked as the editor of the English language weekly newspaper, The Arab Observer. By 1962, she was on the move again, this time to Ghana, where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She was also a feature editor for the The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.
Throughout her years of extensive traveling, Dr. Angelou read and studied insatiably, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and the West African language, Fanti. While living in Ghana, she met Malcolm X, and in 1964, she returned to the United States to help him form his new Organization of African American Unity. Unfortunately, soon after Angelou’s arrival, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved.
After Malcolm X’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. approached Dr. Angelou, asking her to serve as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was assassinated before their plans for a peace march could reach fruition, and Maya was devastated. Dr. King was killed on her birthday, and for that reason, she did not celebrate for many years. Instead of celebrating, she sent flowers to Dr. King’s widow every year until Mrs. King’s death in 2006. At the encouragement of a friend, novelist James Baldwin, Dr. Angelou dealt with her grief and then went on to channel her energy into her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which brought with it her first international recognition and acclaim.
Later Career and Life, Present Day
A groundbreaker in both television and film, Dr. Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film, Georgia, Georgia. Her script, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Dr. Angelou has continued throughout the years appear on films, such as Roots, and Poetic Justice, and has been a guest on television shows such as Sesame Street and The Oprah Winfrey Show. The list of her public writing, both fiction and non-fiction now includes more than 30 best selling titles. In 1996, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta. In 2008, she composed poetry for and narrated the award-winning documentary The Black Candle, directed by M.K. Asante.
My choice to write about Dr. Maya Angelou for my first biography feature was a very personal one for me, because her work truly touches me in many ways. Her struggles in her life and in her books have always resonated with me and inspired and encouraged me to strive for better in my own life. If you have never read a book written by Dr. Maya Angelou, I would highly recommend picking one up at your local library. You won’t be sorry you did.
My Favorite Maya Angelou Quotes:
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
“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.”
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
(Image found via random Google Image Search)