Maya Angelou is one of the most influential black women writers in the world. Her works of poetry and non-fiction are read worldwide and her contributions to the Civil Rights movement are valuable. Angelou went through a lot of ordeals in her life from poverty, rape, selective mutism, to working as a pimp, prostitute, performer, activist, to writer, but she did not let these stop her from producing works send out a positive message of hope. Throughout her lifetime, Maya Angelou wrote memoirs, three collections of essays, seven autobiographies, hundreds of poems, as well as plays, movies, and television shows. Indeed, she is one of the most prolific and inspiring writers in the history of the US.
Maya Angelou’s Life
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in April 4, 1928 (Angelou, . She had an older brother, Bailey Jr., who was the one to give him the nickname “Maya” from “my sister.” From age 3 to 7, Maya, and her brother, were sent to live with their paternal grandmother after their parents’ marriage ended. Angelou and her brother lived a good life with their grandmother since she, according to Angelou, was in a good financial position for owning a general store.
Who is Maya Angelou?
At age 7, their father picked them up and brought them to their mother back in St. Louis. This is where Angelou’s trials begin. When she was 8, her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman, sexually abused and raped Angelou. She told her brother about it, who then told the family about it (I Know Why 80-88). Freeman was found guilty but was jailed only for a day. Shortly after his release, he was murdered. Because of this Angelou did not speak for almost five years. In her autobiography, she recalls “Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended. (I Know Why 87).” Shortly after, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother’s where teacher family friend, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, helped her speak again and introduced her to authors that inspired her to write—Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Georgia Douglas Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, Jessie Fauset (I Know Why 140-146).
At 14, she and Bailey Jr. returned to their mother’s custody. Later on, she moved to San Francisco to study dance but dropped out shortly. She got her first job—her supposed dream job at the time—as a cable car conductor in San Francisco at 16 (I Know Why). She was the first black female cable car conductor despite being refused an application. She cites in her autobiography that her mother supported her in pursuing the position, and even advised her that she would have to work twice as hard. A year later, shortly after she graduated from high school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde (later on Guy Johnson) (I Know Why). Maya Angelou’s multitude of jobs started during this time as she needed to support her son.
Maya Angelou’s Careers
Maya Angelou is no stranger to hard work as she jumped between jobs in her youth to support her son. The jobs she took on were not always legitimate or respectable. Shortly after the birth of her son, she worked shake dancer in a nightclub, then as a paint stripper at a mechanic shop (Als n.p.). She also worked as a cook in a hamburger joint and at a Creole restaurant even though she did not know how to cook. Angelou also worked as a madam for lesbian prostitutes and, briefly, as a prostitute (Als n.p.). She refers to these times as her dark times but she did not hide these and often talked about them so, as she often said, younger people know that she is not perfect and that it is okay to stray but also that one can always redeem oneself. In her interview with Linda Wolf, Angelou is quoted:
If you happen to fall into that sort of experience, what you have to do is forgive yourself. If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home - wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalized and your body not misused and abused. Get up. But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it (“Laugh And Dare to Love” 45).
Angelou married Greek electrician and aspiring musician, Tosh Angelos. During her marriage she took up dancing lessons. She formed a dance team with choreographer Alvin Ailey called “Al and Rita” where they performed modern dance at fraternal black organizations. At the end of her marriage with Angelos, she worked as a Calypso singer and dancer at The Purple Onion (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). It was during this time that she came up with the name “Maya Angelou”—her childhood nickname and a variation of her ex-husband’s last name. Owing to her popularity as a Calypso singer and dancer, Angelou released an album Miss Calypso in 1957 (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). Then she also became part of a production of Porgy and Bess that toured Europe. It is evident that Maya Angelou loved performing and her love of entertaining dominated her life as well as her writing.
In 1959, she moved to New York to concentrate on her writing, upon the urging of novelist John Killens (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). There, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild through which she not only met numerous African-American writers like John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, and Julian Mayfield, but also had the opportunity to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. She was inspired to join the Civil Rights Movement and organized the Cabaret for Freedom for the benefit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with John Killens (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). Although Angelou had started developing her perspective as an activist, her activism does not quite begin until years later.
Why is Maya Angelou a significant figure to this day?
She met and fell in love with South-African dissident lawyer Vusumzi Make and moved to Cairo with him in 1961 (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). There, Angelou published her work at The Arab Observer where she later became Associate Editor. From 1964 to 1966, she moved to Ghana and became the features editor at the African Review and an administrative assistant at the University of Ghana (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). Through her work at the university, Angelou met Malcolm X. She and Malcolm X were set to form the Organization of African American Unity but he was assassinated before they could begin (Als n.p.; “Maya Angelou” n.p.). Angelou avoided the Civil Rights movement after Malcolm X’s death. She returned to singing and worked as a market researcher in the Watts district in Los Angeles. When the 1965 riots, she tried to avoid it, but on the third day joined them. Later on, Martin Luther King Jr. appoints her as the Northern Coordinator of the SCLC and asks her to travel around the country to promote the organization (Als n.p.). She accepts, although reluctantly. The assassination of King occurred just a few weeks after, on her birthday, and like Malcolm X’s greatly affected Angelou.
The years after this became Angelou’s most prolific writing years. She was encouraged by her friend James Baldwin to write. Angelou wrote, produced, and narrated Blacks, Blues, Black!, a ten-part series documentary exploring the connections between blues music and African-Americans’ heritage. This was televised by the National Educational Television (the precursor of PBS) (“The Art of Fiction” n.p.). Then, in 1968, she was challenged by her friends and Random House editor Robert Loomis to write her first autobiography. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first of many memoirs, was published in 1969.
In the 1970s, Angelou wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts, documentaries, autobiographies, and poetry. She also produced plays and became visiting professor at several colleges and universities (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). Among her accomplishments was writing the screenplay and musical score for the film Georgia, Georgia. She also acted in Look Away for which she was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). By then, Angelou had become known across many genres and industries.
Maya Angelou is also a renowned educator. In 1982, he lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She considers herself “a teacher who writes” and taught philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing (Letter to My Daughter, 2008). She was consistently considered an important figure. She took part in numerous political events, such as reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). She also campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the primaries then Barack Obama in the national presidential election in 2008.
Angelou’s Contribution To Literature
Maya Angelou is considered as one of the most important and influential Black American writers in history. The first installation of her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings gave a personal voice to African women (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). It is considered by critics as an autobiographical fiction. Although the autobiography recounts Angelou’s life from childhood to her teenage years, many consider the main character, Maya, as symbolic of black girls in the United States. Angelou herself seems to embrace this paradox created by her work. Angelou calls I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, as well as the six subsequent installments, autobiographies but she admits that she fictionalizes facts to enhance its impact (“The Art of Fiction” n.p.). Her use of first-person singular narrating about the first-person plural—a technique traditionally used in slave narratives—affirms the interpretation that the autobiography is not only about her life but is representative of all black girls living in America (“The Art of Fiction” n.p.). It is no surprise then that I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, with its themes of identity, racism, rape, and literacy, garnered international fame and acclaim.
The succeeding autobiographies, while not as critically acclaimed, were all received positively by readers of the time. Each installment of her autobiography centered on a time in her life. The second, Gather Together In My Name, covers her late teens to early twenties when she became a single mother (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas covered her time as a performer, traveling to Europe and around the world while she grappled with her motherhood (“Maya Angelou” n,p.). The Heart Of A Woman accounts her further travels, including the time she spent in Ghana, the start of her activism, as well as her writing career (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes covers the time she returns from Ghana to the US where she grapples with her identity as African and African-American (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). A Song Flung Up To Heaven features the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., which accents Angelou’s activism and literary career (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). And the final installment, Mom & Me & Mom focuses on Angelou’s relationship with her mother, which includes anecdotes from her childhood and from their reconciliation. All of Angelou’s autobiographies centered on themes of identity, racism, and motherhood. She did not hide the unpleasant parts of her life. She wrote about them freely and unapologetically, which is why her autobiographies are well-loved by generations.
Maya Angelou’s autobiographies were considered revolutionary. Each one explores in great length the themes of identity and race, racism, motherhood, and literacy—all central themes in the lives of Black American women. Not only did it give a voice to Black women, she is also one of the first Black women to publicly discuss her personal life. She wrote about herself unapologetically. Her work set a precedent for future Black writers to put themselves, their narratives, in the center of their writing.
Although Maya Angelou is well-known for her autobiographies, she is also a renowned poet. In 1993, she recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). By this time Angelou had published 5 poetry books namely Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, And Still I Rise, Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing, and I Shall Not Be Moved (“Maya Angelou” n.p.). In 1994, The Complete Collected Poems Of Maya Angelou was published.
Writer and theater critic Hilton Als called Anglou one of the “pioneers of self-exposure” and that although she is not as concerned with politics, much less feminism, her endeavor at writing the “unabashed female personae” freed succeeding generations of women writers freedom from shame (Als, n.p.). This was true, not just about her autobiographies but also in her poetry. Her poems often explored themes of identity—of what it means to be black and a woman, similar to modern accounts of racism and sexism. Like her autobiographies, her poems also allude to her struggles. However, despite Angelou’s numerous poems, critics often consider her more as an autobiographer than a poet, and her poems, although were well read and loved by readers, did not receive much critical attention.
Maya Angelou’s life is filled with challenges but she also filled it with art and beauty. She rose up, indeed a phenomenal woman, and spoke of her experiences. Through her struggles with the world and with herself, she gave the world books, essays, poetry, music, and TV shows and films through which many people found, and continue to find, hope and inspiration. Angelou’s works carry with them a wisdom that many people value. It is also undeniable that she has a way with language that enables her to craft works that pleasant to read and hear. This research paper explores how Angelou’s contribution to literature, in particular, to Black women’s place in literature is undeniable and affirms her reputation as a prolific and inspiring writer.
Als, Hilton. “Songbird: Maya Takes Another Look At Herself.” The New Yorker, 2 August 2005, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/08/05/songbird
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, New York: Random House, 1969. https://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_Full_Text_PDF
Angelou, Maya. “Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction, No. 119.” The Paris Review. Issue no. 116, 1990. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2279/the-art-of-fiction-no-119-maya-angelou
Angelou, Maya. “Laugh and Dare to Love: An Interview With Maya Angelou, by Linda Wolf.” Generation NExT. Issue no. 43, 1995. https://www.context.org/iclib/ic43/angelou/
“Maya Angelou.” Poetry Foundation, n.d., https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/maya-angelou.
Angelou, Maya. “Letter To My Daughter.” New York Times: Times Talks, 1 October 2008, Times Center, New York, NY. Interview Series. https://www.c-span.org/video/?282075-1/letter-daughter