“Meeting Maya on those pages was like meeting myself in full,” said Oprah Winfrey about the first time she read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
And so it was for many black women when they experienced the work of Marguerite Annie Johnson, best known as Maya Angelou, an iconic figure who stood for so much and so many in her lifetime.
YOUTH IN TRANSIT
At the age of three, Maya Angelou was placed on a train with her brother – himself only a year older – and sent to Arkansas. Her parent’s marriage had collapsed, resulting in the siblings coming to live with their paternal grandmother.
Though she experienced racial discrimination, Angelou was bolstered by her grandmother, who she saw as a pillar of strength. When The Great Depression and World War II struck, her grandmother thrived – unlike so many African Americans of the time – thanks to the general store she operated, paired with smart investments.
It was only four years before Angelou’s father suddenly appeared to return the children to their mother in St. Louis. Little did anyone realise the profound effect this would have on her life.
Angelou’s mother had a new boyfriend by the name of Freeman, who sexually abused Angelou when she was only eight years old. She told her brother what happened, and he told the rest of the family. Freeman was arrested, but only temporarily. Four days after his release, he was murdered in retaliation to his offence, most likely by Angelou’s uncle.
The experience shook Angelou to her core. She was returned to her grandmother, and spent the next five years mute. “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…”
This period of silence, for all the trauma associated with it, allowed Angelou to define some of her most important qualities. She read profusely, urged by teacher Bertha Flowers (who would eventually help Angelou find her voice again) and developed an incredible memory. But what was most important was the way Angelou learnt to experience the world. She didn’t talk, she listened, and so her ability to observe and understand the world grew.
At 14, Angelou was once again returned to her mother’s home, this time in California. Her passion for the arts grew, and she received a scholarship to learn dance and acting at the California Labor School. She studied while working as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco (the first black woman to hold the job). Three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to her son, Clyde. She was just 17.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill,
of things unknown
but longed for still.
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill,
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
-The final stanza of Angelou’s poem, Caged Bird.
A struggling mother, Angelou took a range of jobs over the next few years. She was a fry cook, a paint stripper at a mechanics, and both a pimp and prostitute.
When her grandmother – who Angelou had always thought “was probably God” – died, she developed a fear of death. She was so scared, in fact, that she used to jam a chair under the front doorknob before going to bed at night. “I didn’t realise that I was trying to keep death out.”
Then something changed. Angelou accepted that, like everyone, she was bound to die. Knowing that her life would end with her confronting her greatest fear, she vowed to be fearless every single day until that final moment came. “I’m going to die. So why can’t I do everything?”
She took up modern dance classes, and performed at fraternal black organisations in San Francisco. She wasn’t successful, so she took her son and new husband, aspiring musician Tosh Angelos, to New York in order to study African dance for a year.
Her marriage ended shortly after their return to California, but Angelou’s career continued to rise. She danced to calypso music at a local nightclub, gaining attention under the professional name of ‘Maya Angelou’, an amalgamation of her brother’s nickname for her (as a toddler, he called her ‘My-a sister’) and part of her ex-husband’s surname.
In 1954, Angelou received her first major production work on a European tour of the opera Porgy and Bess. She made a habit of studying the languages of the countries she visited, and in a few years was proficient in several.
Two years later, with the calypso scene at the peak of its popularity, Angelou released her first album, Miss Calypso, and performed her own songs in the film Calypso Heat Wave.
THE PEN AND THE POWER
“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential.”
Angelou met writer John Oliver Killens in 1959, and he managed to convince her to move to New York to concentrate on her writing.
She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, and soon found herself surrounded by inspiration black authors, including John Henrik Clarke and Rosa Guy. But for all her intentions to spend the time honing her craft, it was the civil rights movement that captured Angelou’s interest after she met Martin Luther King Jr. A
ngelou began to heavily involve herself in civil rights protests. She was vocally pro-Castro and anti-apartheid, but it was the Cabaret for Freedom – a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-created with Killens – that saw Angelou become an icon of revolution.
She formed a relationship with a South African freedom fighter, and followed him to Africa, where she spent the next five years developing her writing skills. She lived in Cairo for a year, where she was an associate editor on the English-language newspaper The Arab Observer, before relocating to Ghana where she worked as a freelance writer, editor, radio host and performer for three years.
It was during this time that Malcolm X came to visit the city of Accra, where Angelou lived. The two developed a friendship, and soon returned to the US to develop a new civil rights organisation: The Organisation of Afro-American Unity. Within months, he was assassinated.
Angelou returned to her writing, but not for long. A brief stint in Los Angeles saw her witness the Watts race riots in the summer of 1965, before she rejoined protest leaders in New York.
THE YEAR THAT CHANGED IT ALL
“If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou’s spirit and creative genius,” says writers Marcia Ann Gillespie, Rosa Johnson Butler, and Richard A. Long in their novel Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration.
A year of sadness it was. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, the day of Angelou’s 40th birthday.
She slumped into depression, but her friend James Baldwin would not let her give up. He went with her to a dinner party, at which Random House editor Robert Loomis heard her story. He challenged her to write an autobiography.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings released in 1969. Unflinching in its description of a hard, dramatic, yet powerful life, it saw Angelou receive international acclaim. It was one of the first times an African-American artist had publicly discussed their lives and not been dismissed to the margins of society, as was almost always the case before Angelou and her compatriots had made such influential headway in the civil rights movement.
It was nominated for a National Book Award, and remained on the New York Times bestsellers list for two years.
A LIFE STORY
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings touched on only the first 17 years of Angelou’s life. It was followed by six more novels, chronicling her experiences leading up to the year in which Caged Bird was released.
Angelou had a very particular process for writing these autobiographies. Every morning, she would wake at her home and check into a nearby hotel, where the staff members were instructed to remove pictures from the walls. She would then sit on the bed with a notepad, a deck of cards, a thesaurus, a bible, and a bottle of sherry. Angelou would play solitaire as a means of accessing her memory. “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!” Then she would write an average of 10-12 pages, leave in the early afternoon, and edit her work in the evening.
THE LOT, AND MORE
Angelou never forgot the revelation she had experienced several decades prior, and continued in her quest to “do everything”.
Georgia, Georgia was the first produced screenplay written by a black woman upon release in 1972. She also wrote the film’s soundtrack, the first of many she would compose. Angelou later went on to direct her own film, Down in the Delta.
She wrote songs for performer Roberta Flack, articles for magazines, documentaries, poetry, plays, and was a guest professor at several colleges and universities. Interestingly, though she never went to university, Angelou was referred to as ‘Dr Maya Angelou’ by everyone except close friends, at her bidding.
From around this time, Angelou began receiving a vast amount of awards, a list of which can be found here.
In the late-70s, she met struggling Baltimore TV anchor Oprah Winfrey, and became her mentor.
As of the 1980s, she took up full time professorship at the Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and from that point on considered herself “a teacher who writes”. Over the years she lectured on everything from philosophy to science, ethics to theatre. There was criticism from those who considered her more of a celebrity than an intellectual, but she was never one to let critics take away from her success.
In 1993, Angelou recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton – leading to an almost 600% increase in sales of her books – and two years later commemorated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations by reciting A Brave and Startling Truth.
Other endeavours including an R&B album with artists Ashford & Simpson, and a collection of Hallmark greeting cards and decorative merchandise.
Maya Angelou died suddenly on the morning of May 28, 2014. Her memorial was attended by prestigious members of the community, including Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Bill Clinton.
Today, Angelou is as strong an icon for perseverance, courage, and confidence. Her work has seeded the zeitgeist, and its impact spread vaster than perhaps even she realised it ever would. Then again, considering the scope of her life, perhaps she did realise.