Maya Angelou: A Literary Icon
A renowned American author, poet, artist, and activist, Maya Angelou was born on 4 April 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri as Marguerite Anne Johnson. So much more than a summary of her acclaimed works, Angelou led a remarkable life and left a legacy which can still be felt in 2023.
Well-deservingly described as ‘extraordinary’ by many, Angelou achieved more in her lifetime than most people could hope for in ten. Truly phenomenal, she worked with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on civil rights activism projects, served on two presidential committees (for Gerald Ford in 1975 and Jimmy Carter in 1977), educated many as the Reynolds professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and over 50 honorary degrees among many other accomplishments.
Angelou became mute for five years having decided that her “voice was so powerful that it could kill people”
One of Angelou’s most famous works I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) chronicled her formative years spent for the most part with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas following her parents’ divorce. Continuing to appeal to younger female readers, the autobiography often features on school and university reading lists as it tackles racial injustice in segregated America. Critic, Harold Bloom, stated that Angelou achieved “an almost unique tone that blends intimacy and detachment, a tone indeed of assured serenity that transcends the fearful humiliations and outrages that she suffered as a girl”. Both emotional and controversial, the book describes how she suffered sexual abuse from her mother’s then-boyfriend at just seven years old and how he was later murdered by her uncles for his atrocities. Feeling responsible for his death, Angelou became mute for five years having decided that her “voice was so powerful that it could kill people”.
Despite her prolonged silence, Angelou developed a love for literature and language, beginning to write her own poems and stories to convey her inner thoughts. She explored the works of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, as well as black authors like Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Moving to San Francisco during the early 1940s, Angelou studied dance and drama at the California Labor School and graduated aged seventeen. Giving birth to her son Guy shortly after, she worked several jobs as a single mother, even becoming the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Within the next decade, Angelou got her ‘big break’ singing in the Purple Onion cabaret and becoming a member of a touring production of Porgy and Bess.
Throughout her books, readers delve into the mind of a woman searching for answers, who prevailed through traumatic childhood and found her calling as an artist.
Joining the legendary ranks of writers and artists like James Baldwin in the Harlem Writers Guild by the late 1950s, Angelou became closely tied with the Civil Rights Movement. She worked as the northern coordinator for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference before moving to Cairo and later Ghana. Angelou gained experience as a freelance writer and editor as well as an educator in music and drama. An iconic literary career, however, began in the mid 1960s when she was encouraged to write an autobiography which became and immediate success.
The first of six books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (as mentioned before), was innovative in writing style for its time and still provides debates regarding truth vs. memory in the autobiographical genre. James Baldwin noted: “I have no words for this achievement, but I know that not since the days of my childhood, when the people in books were more real than the people one saw every day, have I found myself so moved”. It remained on the New York Times best-seller list two-years running and garnered a powerful public reaction. Further memoirs included Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). Throughout her books, readers delve into the mind of a woman searching for answers, who prevailed through traumatic childhood and found her calling as an artist – it is why so many people feel that they understand her true character.
Angelou was also celebrated poet, gaining international exposure when she delivered an original poem for Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. Reading On the Pulse of Morning, the world watched in awe as she called for peace, justice, and celebrated the diversity of the US population:
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning
Angelou later won a Grammy for Best Spoken World Album of her recording of this poem. Poetry was created alongside producing and writing various plays, TV shows and films, making history as Hollywood’s first African American female director.
Dying in 2014 at the age of 86, Dr Maya Angelou undoubtedly left her mark on the world and generations of writers and artists to come. Her legacy is not just felt in her publications but among groups she represented and uplifted. Fellow author Toni Morrison paid tribute in 2014 telling the BBC: “She launched African American women writing in the United States”. Morrison added that Angelou was “generous to a fault”. Fighting poverty, violence and injustice into her final years, the Dr. Maya Angelou Foundation lives on and is dedicated to improving the quality of life for all human beings.
I’ve read all of Maya Angelou’s books over and over..they inspired me when I was going through tough times she was an ambassador for survival. She was a strong woman. She inspired greatness from her humble roots… So sad when she passed.she is greatly missed and she was one of a kind I shall never forget her couldn’t wait for when her latest books were published bless her