1928 – Present
Maya Angelou must be remembered for her ceaseless courage, depth of wisdom, and undying spirit and wit. She is best known for her autobiographical work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but her feats span beyond the realm of writing to include teaching, travel, acting, singing and dancing, activism, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, and mothering a child since the ripe age of 17. “All that,” says Oprah Winfrey, “and she cooks like a champion: She prepares the kind of food that makes you want to take a bite and tell about it.”
Many have bestowed awards upon Ms. Angelou, and she has bestowed generosity, guidance, and inspiration upon the millions who have crossed her path, read her poetry, and heard her speak.
Mario Chiodo chose to memorialize Angelou with her own quote: “Only equals can be friends,” and upon learning about this great woman, it becomes clear that this principle has served as a guiding strand of wisdom throughout her life. Only if one views himself or herself as equally capable, equally strong, and as equally human as another, will mutual respect, kindness, and compassion evolve amongst humankind.
on to Maya Angelou
On the 4th of April in 1928, in the city of St. Louis, Missouri a baby girl was born. Her parents called her Marguerite Annie Johnson. When Marguerite Annie Johnson was three years old, her parents divorced and she and her older brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their grandmother in a small town in Arkansas called Stamps. Bailey loved his little sister, but had a very difficult time pronouncing her name, so he called her “My” for “My sister.” A few years later, Bailey read a book about the Mayan people of Mexico and Central America and began to call little My “Maya”. The name stuck and Marguerite Annie Johnson became Maya.
When Maya was seven years old, she and Bailey went to visit their mother and her boyfriend in Chicago, Illinois. This visit turned out to be one that would change Maya’s life forever. While there, she was sexually assaulted and then raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. In visceral detail, Angelou describes her experience in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on a seven-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.”
After raping her, Mr. Freeman threatened her life if she told anyone, then he threatened Bailey’s life if little Maya told her brother. As if the physical anguish was not enough, fear and shame caused Maya to live in pain and silence for years. Before her spell of silence, Maya wondered: “Could I tell [my mother] now? The terrible pain assured me that I couldn’t. What he did to me, and what I allowed, must have been very bad if already God let me hurt so much... If Mr. Freeman was gone, did that mean Bailey was out of danger? And if so, if I told him, would he still love me?”
Six years later, when Maya was 13 years old, she and Bailey moved to San Francisco to live with their mother again. It was then that Maya finally began to speak. She attended Mission High School and won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. As though her vitality had been pent up in her silence, Maya’s life began to pulse and expand with this new opportunity. It propelled her to embark upon many artistic and expressive endeavors: She moved to New York City in the late 1950s to pursue a dancing career, and wound up cast in the production of Porgy and Bess. While in New York, she also found support and encouragement for her literary aptitude at the Harlem Writer’s Guild.
Maya’s feet literally left the ground when, at age 26, she got to tour through Europe with the production of Porgy and Bess. When she returned to New York, she studied dance with some of the finest teachers of the contemporary movement: Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. She even recorded her first album called Calypso Lady, and wrote and performed her very own show called Cabaret for Freedom.
However, prior to the great flight and unfolding of her career, Maya became pregnant. She gave birth to her only child, Guy, at age 17. As Oprah states: “A few years later, when her grandmother died, the grief sent her reeling. It was then that she gave herself what one might call a Maya manifest: She would live—fully.” And she has.
Maya set off to raise Guy on her own, sustained by her strength of will and tremendous capabilities. She married only once, and the marriage did not last. It was prior to her travels in Europe that she met a Greek sailor by the name of Anastasios Angelopulo. They wed in 1952, and separated shortly thereafter. Though the marriage was fleeting, Maya choose to inherit Anastasios’ last name, but shortened it to make it her own. And that is how Marguerite Annie Johnson became Maya Angelou.
A Maya Manifest
After her tour of Europe, Maya Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt with little Guy, where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The next year, 1961, she moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review, and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. It was in Ghana that she met the legendary Malcolm X.
Angelou was already an indirect participant in the Civil Rights Movement; her creative works, teaching abroad experiences, and writing were all, in some way, a call to freedom for African Americans. But it was her encounter with Malcolm X in Ghana that drew her back to the United States to become deeply engaged with the Movement.
She returned in 1964 with the intent of helping Malcolm build his new Organization of African American Unity. But in 1965, Malcolm X was killed, and his dream for his organization never came to fruition. But this did not stop Angelou from participating in the Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself requested that Angelou serve as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And she did so, wholeheartedly.
In her novel, The Heart of a Woman, Angelou writes of her experience in a church in Harlem, waiting to hear Dr. King speak:
The preacher told us what we already knew about Martin Luther King, the dangers he had experienced and the triumphs he had won. The listeners didn’t move... He was here, our own man, black, intelligent and fearless... He would stand up behind the pulpit, full grown, and justify the years of sacrifice and the days of humiliation. He was the best we had, the brightest and most beautiful. Maybe today would be the day we would find ourselves free.
Angelou worked with King for three years, only to be devastated yet again by his assassination, which landed on her birthday in 1968. But she clung to her “Maya manifest”, and with the guidance of her friend, and fellow author, James Baldwin, she began to write.
Reading and Writing
Angelou found solace in her writing, though she was not tackling docile subjects or telling sweet fairytales. No, it was the story of her life that she told in her first novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And in it, she spoke about the tremendous power of literature that affected her even as a young girl:
When Spring came to St. Louis, I took out my first library card, and since Bailey and I seemed to be growing apart, I spent most of my Saturdays at the library (no interruptions) breathing in the world of penniless shoeshine boys who, with goodness and perseverance, became rich, rich men, and gave baskets of goodies to the poor on holidays. The little princesses who were mistaken for maids, and the long-lost children mistaken for waifs, became more real to me than our house, our mother, school and Mr. Freeman.
Reading has always been a source of inspiration, and perhaps a kind of freedom, for Maya Angelou. However, though we now know her as an exquisite master of the written word, the beauty and cadence of her poetry and prose was not always readily accessible for her. In a 1997 interview, Angelou recalls:
I was a mute from the time I was seven and a half until I was almost 13. I didn't speak. I had voice, but I refused to use it. My grandmother, who was raising me in a little village in Arkansas, used to tell me, “Sister, mamma don't care about what these people say: ‘You must be an idiot, you must be a moron.’ Mamma don't care, sister. Mamma know, when you and the Good Lord get ready, you're gonna be a preacher.” Well, I used to sit and think to myself, “Poor, ignorant mamma. She doesn't know. I will never speak, let alone preach.” It has devolved upon me to – not preach, as it were – but to write about morals, about hope, about desolation, about pain and ecstasy and joy and triumph in the human spirit. So it seems to me, that is my calling. And I write about it for all of us, because I know that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.
And so, even years after the primary era of the Civil Rights Movement, Angelou carries on the legacy of Malcolm X and Dr. King, touting the ideals of humanity, equality, and justice – no doubt a preacher in her own right.
Nevertheless, in her interview with Oprah, Angelou admits:
Oprah: Do you find many things hard now?
Maya: Writing. It has always been hard, even after 20 or so books.
Oprah: I just read that Caged Bird is on the American Library Association's list of the
ten books most often requested for banning.
Maya: Yes. But many of the people who want it banned have never read a page of my
“Only equals make friends.”
Born a Black American, Maya Angelou entered into a world where racism was all too familiar. This “ism” of hatred, fear and ignorance still exists, but in her lifetime, Angelou found the means, time and time again, to shine the light of love and wisdom on this evil spirit.
Angelou encountered racism in many forms growing up in the United States, and discussed her opinion on the subject in her 1997 interview:
A black person grows up in this country – and in many places – knowing that racism will be as familiar as salt to the tongue. Also, it can be as dangerous as too much salt. I think that you must struggle for betterment for yourself and for everyone. It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air; we all have it or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.
Racism is a pervasive virus, sparing none from harm. However, as Angelou’s interviewer points out, “It’s very hard to hate someone if you look them in the eye and recognize them as a human being.” To this, Angelou exclaimed, “Ah! You must add that: ‘And recognize them as a human being.’ Because people have lynched people, and people threw people in the gas ovens, and they were looking them in the eye. But in order to empathize, you have to accept that ‘This person is as human as I.’ Once you do that, it's very hard to impose cruelty on another human being.”
But, growing up in a society that was in many ways built by racism, the symptoms of the disease are not easily eradicated, let alone the disease itself. Even with the best of intentions, one may find it challenging to defy the social norms of racism. To overcome this, Angelou prescribes courage and practice:
I will not sit in a group of black friends and hear racial pejoratives against whites. I will not hear “honky.” I will not hear “Jap.” I will not hear “kike.” I will not hear “greaser.” I will not hear “dago.” I will not hear it. As soon as I hear it, I say, “Excuse me, I have to leave. Sorry.” Or if it's in my home, I say, “You have to leave. I can't have that. That is poison, and I know it is poison, and you're smearing it on me. I will not have it.” Now, it's not an easy thing. And one doesn't all of a sudden sort of blossom into somebody who's courageous enough to say that. But you do start little by little…. Little by little, you develop courage. You sit in a room, and somebody says, “Well, you know what the Japs did then, and what they're doing now.” Say, “Mm-hmm! I have to go. My goodness! It's already six o'clock.” Leave. Continue to build the courage. Sooner or later, you'll be able to say out loud, “Just a minute. I defend that person. I will not have gay bashing, lesbian bashing. Not in my company. I will not do it.”
Attacking the symptoms of racism is an excellent place to begin tearing down the system. However, Angelou insists that we will not break the cycle of racism until a true dialogue forms between all people. We must find a way to be unabashedly honest with ourselves, so that we can begin this dialogue with a quality that is both raw and sincere:
I see us in the most complex, enigmatic puzzle, which of course is life. The need we have to see ourselves in each other and admit what we see is so great. The Native American will only be able to break that cycle when the larger society says, “These people are Americans and deserve everything all Americans have.” The black American will only be able to break his cycle of poverty and violence and child abuse and early death through drugs when the larger society and the African American say, “I and they deserve everything, everything good.” And, until we do that, we are putting band-aids on somebody's throat which has just been cut. We are just talking. I hope young men and women…today will take this moment to try to talk together. Many of you can hardly articulate what you really feel, and yet your hearts are full. Talk, use the language, men. Use the language, women. That is the only thing which really separates us from the rats and the rhinoceros. It is the ability to say how we feel. “I believe this.” “I need this.” Start to talk, please. Well, you know I love you and I'm really overcome.
What follows are a memory, a lesson learned, two verses, and words of advice from Dr. Maya Angelou….
Maya and Tupac:
“Let me tell you a story about someone who is known by many young men and women. Years ago, I did a movie called Poetic Justice, and there was a young man, the first day, who cursed so! I couldn't believe it. I walked around behind him, tried to ignore him. But the second day, he and another young man, black man, ran to each other and they were about to fight and hundreds of extras started to run away, but one black man walked up to the two young men and I walked up. I took one by his shoulder, I said, ‘Let me speak to you.’ He said, ‘If these blah-blah...’ I said, ‘Let me speak to you, honey.’ ‘Well, I tell you something, blah-blah...’ I said, ‘No, let me talk to you, please.’ And he finally calmed down and I said, ‘Do you know how much you are needed? Do you know what you mean to us? Do you know that hundreds of years of struggle have been for you? Please baby, take a minute. Don't lose your life on a zoom.’ I put my arm around him. He started to weep. The tears came down. That was Tupac Shakur. I took him, I walked him down into a little gully and kept his back to the people so they wouldn't see him, and I used my hands to dry his cheeks. I kept talking to him sweetly, sweetly. For the next week while I was on that film, whenever I walked by, he would be saying, ‘So I told these...’ – he would say, ‘Good morning, Ms. Angelou.’”
16 and Pregnant:
“It was my fortune to have a child when I was 16. I had just finished – I finished high school three weeks before my son was born. Now, here was my blessing. I refused to go on welfare; I refused to take money from my mother; and when my son was three months old, I moved out of my mother's house and got a room with cooking privileges. I did force myself to read. Read. And I did force myself to work. I have taken my son all over the world. He finished high school in Egypt, where I was working; took his first degree from the University of Ghana, where I was working. I realize this, and this is what I have to say to the young women who already have children: Remember that that is somebody. That’s not just an appendage. It's not just somebody you attach to your hip and you hold in your arms. That's a person -- a person who may have the most horrible life if you're not careful, or a person who can have the most glorious life if you're careful. Just remember that is somebody. And that is somebody's child: Your child. And that you are somebody's child. So try to enrich yourself. Don't take ‘No.’ Don't take low. And under no circumstances must you accept being battered by anybody, including life.”
When asked if there is any one poem or verse that has sustained her throughout her life, through challenges and adversities, Dr. Angelou responded with snippets from two of her most beloved poems. The first is called “And Still I Rise”:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies;
You may trod me in the very dirt;
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
“And then, a poem just for women, which is called ‘Phenomenal Women,’ and I love the poem. I wrote it for black women, and white women, and Chinese women, and Japanese women, and Jewish women. I wrote it for Native American women, Aleut, Eskimo ladies. I wrote it for all women. Very fat women, very thin, pretty, plain. Now, I know men are phenomenal, but they have to write their own poem.”
Many people [sic] wonder
Where my secret lies.
I’m not cute, or built to suit
A fashion model’s size.
When I try to show them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say: It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman, phenomenally!
What is Important:
“It is not impossible to become Martin Luther King, to become J.F. Kennedy, to become Mahatma Gandhi, it is not impossible to become Barbara Jordan or Eleanor Roosevelt. That is not impossible, it's within your grasp, absolutely. Those were human beings. So, if you approach that with that idea –if you approach the future with the idea that I am up to it, I am a man or woman of my time, and I am up to it. I will study hard, pray a lot and all that, but I am up to it. If you do that, then, in case the contemporary leaders fall, there will be someone to step in the place, you see? That is what is important.”
And for good measure:
“All knowledge, my dear young woman – all knowledge – is spendable currency, depending upon the market. Read. Put it in the old bean. You’ll be amazed how it will serve you.”
Maya Angelou, The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou (New York: The Modern Library, 2004) 63.
“Maya Angelou Biography: America’s Renaissance Woman”
“Oprah Talks to Maya Angelou”
“Maya Angelou Biography: America’s Renaissance Woman”
“Oprah Talks to Maya Angelou”
“Maya Angelou Interview” 3.
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