Article abstract: Best known for her poetry and autobiographical works, Angelou has had a multifaceted career, enjoying success as a dancer, actress, and teacher.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928 to Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson. Following her parents’ divorce, Angelou and her brother were sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, a poor rural section of Arkansas. Angelou’s grandmother, whom she called “Momma,” was the stable force in Angelou’s early life. Annie Henderson was a strong, religious woman who made sure that the family went to church regularly. Religion and spiritual music were important factors in the Johnson family life. Angelou also enjoyed a close relationship with her brother Bailey, who gave her the name “Maya.” Angelou and her brother lived with their grandmother and Uncle Willie in the rear of the Johnson store, which Annie Henderson had owned for twenty-five years. Because the store was the center of activity for the black community, Angelou saw at first hand the indignities that black residents suffered as a result of the prejudices of the white community in Stamps.
Angelou was a victim of violence at an early age. During one of her visits to her mother in St. Louis, Angelou was raped by a friend of her mother. When her mother’s brothers found out about the rape, they killed the man responsible. Believing that she had caused the man’s death by speaking his name, Angelou refused to speak for five years following these traumatic events. With the encouragement of Mrs. Flowers, an educated black woman from Stamps, Angelou regained her speech. Under Mrs. Flowers’ further guidance, Angelou began to read the works of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
After graduating at the top of her eighth grade class in Stamps, Angelou and her brother continued their education in California. While still in high school, she worked as the first black woman streetcar conductor in San Francisco. At the age of sixteen and unmarried, she gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson. To support herself and Guy, she took jobs as a waitress, cook, and nightclub singer. In 1950, she married Tosh Angelos, a former sailor of Greek ancestry, but they were divorced after a few years. (Angelou’s surname was derived from that of her former husband.)
Angelou continued her early interest in music and dance by studying with Martha Graham. She went on to tour twenty-two countries during 1954 and 1955 as the premier dancer in Porgy and Bess. Her travels with the cast took her to Italy, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Egypt. During the late 1950’s, Angelou and Guy lived in a houseboat commune in California, where they went barefoot, wore jeans, and let their hair grow long. These experiences brought Angelou into contact with a variety of people from different countries and of different races.
As Angelou became interested in a writing career, she moved to New York in 1958 and joined the Harlem Writers Guild. In addition to working on her writing, she starred in the New York production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks (1960) with Godfrey Cambridge and collaborated with Cambridge to produce, direct, and star in Cabaret for Freedom (1960).
In 1960, Angelou and Guy moved to Cairo, Egypt, with a South African freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make. In Egypt, she served as an editor for Arab Observer, an English-language newspaper. Two years later, she and Guy moved to the West African nation of Ghana, where she worked for three years as a writer, as an assistant administrator for the University of Ghana, and as a feature editor for African Review.
In the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Maya Angelou shares her experience of growing up as a poor black female in the segregated rural South. Throughout her career she has continued to draw on her own experiences as the subject matter for her work. She has published four more volumes of her personal narrative showing how she was able to overcome obstacles posed by her race and gender to achieve success in many areas. In Gather Together in My Name (1974), Angelou writes about a difficult period in her life, a time when she was forced to work at menial jobs to support herself and her son. In Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), Angelou describes her life as a dancer and actress, including her travels with the cast of Porgy and Bess. The next two volumes, The Heart of a Woman (1981) and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) the rise of her career.
Angelou’s early exposure to spirituals and gospel music influenced her poetry. This poetry reveals a woman whose faith has sustained her in difficult times, and the rhythm of gospel music finds its way into her poetry. She has published several volumes of poetry: Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971), which earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination; Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), whose title came from a nineteenth century spiritual; And Still I Rise (1978); Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983); Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987); and I Shall Not Be Moved (1990).
Her firsthand knowledge of the harmful effects of racism led her to become a political activist, working for civil rights and for a wider understanding of the African American culture. In the 1960’s, at the request of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angelou served as the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Her knowledge of the traditions and culture of black society went beyond political activism as Angelou worked to share this culture with a wider audience. She produced Blacks, Blues, Black (1968) for National Educational Television. This ten-part series explored African traditions in American life. Other television credits that deal with African American culture include Assignment America (1975), The Legacy (1976), The Inheritors (1976), and Trying to Make It Home (1988).
The diversity of her experiences and considerable talents have led her into the fields of dance, theater, and film. As an actress, she is probably best known for her portrayal of Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the television production of Alex Haley’s Roots (1977). She played the role of the grandmother in the 1993 television film, There Are No Children Here. In addition to her acting career, she has produced and directed for the stage and screen. She also wrote the screenplays for Georgia, Georgia (1972) and All Day Long (1974), and collaborated on the teleplay for Sister, Sister (1982). In 1995 she had a cameo role in How to Make and American Quilt, and in 1998 she directed her first film: Down in the Delta.
In recognition of Angelou’s many accomplishments she has been awarded a variety of honors. Ladies’ Home Journal named her “Woman of the Year in Communications” in 1976. She holds honorary doctorates from the University of Arkansas, Claremont College Graduate School, Ohio State University, Atlanta University, Wheaton College, Occidental College, Columbia College, Kean College, Smith College, Mills College, Lawrence University, and Wake Forest University and others. At the request of President Bill Clinton, Angelou wrote and delivered the commemorative poem at his inauguration on January 20, 1993. This poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” was later published by Random House. Angelou holds a lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
In the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou evokes an authentic portrait of what it was like to be black, poor, and female in the segregated South during the 1930’s. As she relates her personal narrative, she reveals herself as a strong, determined black woman who can overcome adversities and emerge triumphant. Through this work and others, Angelou has provided a role model for other black women who struggle to support their children, while maintaining a positive outlook on life. As she reveals the problems and challenges she has faced, she casts light on the lives of other black people, providing an insight into the quality of their lives. As she has matured as a writer, Angelou has extended that insight to include all persons, regardless of race or color.
In stressing the theme of triumph of the human spirit, Angelou urges others to rise above their defeats. Her philosophy is, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” The power of Angelou’s personal narrative impacts the lives of other women who follow her. Her works have earned praise for their candor in revealing the struggles, challenges, and triumphs that are her life. In showing how she overcame obstacles, she has served as a role model for other women. In her personal appearances and in her written work, Angelou shows herself to be a joyful, warm, articulate, and strong woman who writes about the challenges of the real world.
Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Discusses how Angelou employs the image of the protecting mother as a primary archetype within her work. Traces Angelou’s development of themes common to black female autobiography: the centrality of the family, the challenges of child rearing and single parenthood, and the burden of overcoming negative stereotypes of African American women.
Cudjoe, Selwyn. “Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1983. Cudjoe discusses the importance of Angelou’s biographical work, arguing that she represents “the condition of Afro-American womanhood in her quest for understanding and love rather than for bitterness and despair.” Cudjoe stresses that by telling the story of her own life in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has shown the reader what it means to be a black female in America.
Elliott, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Part of the University Press of Mississippi’s ongoing Literary Conversations series, this work is a collection of more than thirty interviews with Angelou that originally appeared in various magazines and newspapers, accompanied by a chronology of her life. Provides a multifaceted perspective on the creative issues that have informed Angelou’s work as an autobiographer and a poet.
Lupton, Mary Jane. “Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Summer, 1990): 257-275. A scholarly assessment of Angelou’s literary contributions to the field of autobiography, placing her within the rich context of African American narratives.
O’Neale, Sondra. “Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou’s Continuing Autobiography.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1983. O’Neale argues that Angelou’s primary contribution to the canon of African American literature lies in her realistic portrayal of the lives of black people, especially black women. O’Neale goes on to demonstrate the ways in which Angelou successfully destroys many of the stereotypes of black women.
Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. In this collection of interviews, Tate explores the personal lives and works of such contemporary African American writers as Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. In her interview, Angelou discusses the importance of black role models.