Maya Angelou was one of the most influential black poets of the 20th and early 21st century, writing on themes of racism, identity, family and travel. She was also a civil rights activist and worked with both Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. She was showered with awards and over 50 honorary degrees, however, her life was not always plain sailing.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4th April 1928 in Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Johnson, Maya was given her nickname from her older brother, Bailey Jr. Unfortunately, her parents’ marriage was not a happy one and they separated when she was three years old. Rather than take responsibility for his children, her father sent them to Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. They remained there until Maya was seven when they moved home to live with their mother.
Sadly, living with their mother also meant living with their mother’s abusive boyfriend who raped Maya when she was only eight years old. The man was arrested and locked up for one day but was murdered four days later, most likely by Maya’s uncles. The abuse greatly affected Maya who became mute for five years, even after moving back in with her grandmother. Fortunately, her school teacher helped Maya to regain her voice whilst also feeding her passion for reading, introducing the young girl to authors who would influence her future career.
When Maya was 14, she rejoined her mother, who was then living in California. At the age of 16, she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, where she worked whilst also attending school. Unfortunately, she got herself in trouble and, no more than three weeks after graduation, gave first to a baby boy, Clyde.
In 1951, Maya married a Greek electrician called Tosh Angelos, despite her mother’s disapproval. At that time, interracial marriages were unusual. Maya began taking dance lessons and dreamt of a career in a dance team. In an attempt to increase her prospects, Maya, Tosh and Clyde moved to New York for a year where she studied African dance. For reasons unknown, in 1954, not long after returning to San Francisco, Maya’s marriage ended.
Having to fend for herself financially, Maya began dancing in local clubs, such as The Purple Onion, under her professional name, Maya Angelou. In 1954-5, she toured Europe by acting in the opera Porgy and Bess and, in 1957, wrote and recorded an album called Miss Calypso. In every country she visited, Maya made a point of learning the language, quickly becoming proficiently multilingual.
In 1959, African-American author John Oliver Killens encouraged Maya to focus more on writing songs and poems rather than solely performing. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and soon became a published author. The following year, she met Martin Luther King Jr and was inspired to organise a concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called Cabaret for Freedom.
Maya had a brief relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Cairo in 1961 along with her son who had renamed himself Guy. The relationship only lasted a year, after which Maya moved to Ghana where her son enrolled at university. While Guy was studying, Maya worked as a freelance writer for The African Review and Radio Ghana.
Whilst living in Ghana, Maya met Malcolm X who was touring Africa. He encouraged her to return to the USA in 1965 and help him set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after, Malcolm X was assassinated and Maya, at a loss, moved to Hawaii where her brother lived and refocused on her singing career. Not long after, she returned to Los Angeles to resume her writing career.
In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr approached Maya for help in organising a march. Tragically, in a similar fate to Malcolm X, King was then assassinated on what was Maya’s 40th birthday. After a bout of depression, Maya resumed writing and published her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Initially, the publishers were unsure whether to publish the book but it went on to become a bestseller, earning Maya international recognition.
In 1972, Maya became the first black woman to write a screenplay, which was filmed in Sweden and released under the name Georgia, Georgia. She also wrote the soundtrack for the film. The following year, she married the Welsh carpenter Paul du Feu who had once been married to the radical feminist, Germaine Greer. For the next decade, Maya continued to write articles, screenplays, poems and books and also became close friends with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her second marriage ended in divorce in 1981.
Returning to the southern states, Maya accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, becoming one of the first black women to be a full-time professor. She taught on a variety of themes that interested her, including philosophy, ethics, writing and theatre, but also continued to write.
In 1993, Maya Angelou recited one of her poems at the inauguration of Bill Clinton - the first poet to do so since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. This televised event increased her fame across the world and earned her a Grammy Award. In 1996, she finally achieved her goal of directing a film (Down in the Delta) and, by 2002, she had published her 6th autobiography.
Hillary Clinton, during her campaign for the Democratic Party 2008 presidential primaries, used Maya Angelou’s endorsement on her advertisements. After Obama won the primary, Maya gave him her full support. When Obama became the first African-American president, Maya was quoted saying, "We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism."
Maya published her 7th and final autobiography in 2013 called Mom & Me & Mom, focusing on her relationship with her mother. The following year, on 28th May 2014, passed away after her health deteriorated. Despite cancelling a few events, Maya Angelou was working and attending events right up until her death. Tributes flooded in as soon as the news was made public and her first biography instantly became the number one bestseller on Amazon. A public funeral was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had been a member for 30 years.
As well as the Grammy Award for her poetry recital at Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou received several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, two more Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and over 50 honorary degrees. Although these were awarded for her talents, they are also a sign that she overcame her past, the abuse and did not let racial inequalities stand in the way of her success.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon