Maya Angelou 1928-
(Born Marguerite Johnson) American poet, autobiographer, screenwriter, playwright, actress, singer, and political activist.
In her poetry, as in the five volumes of autobiography upon which her fame rests, Angelou's primary concern is with the distillation of experience into immediately accessible language. Her writing attempts to capture and preserve the determining forces, vicissitudes, and ambiance of her own life story and of the ongoing African-American story, which helped to shape her and which she reflects and illuminates.
Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928, abandoned by both her parents when they divorced, Angelou early experienced the twin forces that would determine the shape of her life and the nature of her career: personal rejection and institutional racism. Until her teen years when she lived with her mother in San Francisco, she lived with her paternal grandmother, a strong independent woman who ran a grocery store, in Stamps, Arkansas. On a visit to her mother in St. Louis, when Angelou was eight, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. After his murder by her uncles, she returned to her grandmother in Arkansas. Traumatized by the events, she stopped speaking, and only regained her voice in her early teens. At sixteen, soon after her high school graduation, Angelou became the single mother of a son. Her life continued to present her ample material for autobiography. She has been at various times in her life a streetcar conductor, Creole cook, madam, prostitute, junkie, singer, actress, and civil-rights activist. Angelou toured Europe for the U.S. State Department in Porgy and Bess, and appeared on Broadway and Off-Broadway in the Negro Ensemble Theater Company's famous production of Jean Genet's The Blacks. She wrote for the theater, the movies, television, and achieved celebrity with the first volume of her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Married and divorced several times, Angelou has lived and worked in Ghana and in Egypt, where she was associate editor of the English language Arab Observer. Angelou has written plays, composed musical scores, written television programs, and lectured on literature. She achieved national prominence in 1993 when she read “On the Pulse of the Morning,” a poem she had written, at his request, for Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration.
As in her volumes of autobiography, Angelou's poems suggest a context of experiences and character of incidents that give them meaning, rather than being autonomous creations independent of external, experiential reference. As with her volumes of autobiography, they, too, show twin concerns: the effects and consequences of individual desire, experience, oppression, and loss, and the social, psychological, and spiritual responses to racial and sexual brutality.
Despite the popular success of her poetry, general critical consensus holds that Angelou would be hardly known as a poet were she not famous for the chronicles of her life. Her poems are considered by some critics to be thin in substance, lacking in poetic invention, and lackluster in language. Others, however, argue that the poems belong to a neglected oral tradition, incorporate elements of African-American slave songs and work songs, and must be seen as lyrics which require performance to reveal their depth and riches. As critic Lyman B. Hagen has observed, “Angelou may rank as a poet of moderate ability, but her poetry is praised for its honesty and for a moving sense of dignity.”