Maya Angelou: Painfully honest autobiographer
Maya Angelou, born as Marguerite Annie Johnson was an acclaimed black American poet, storyteller, activist, and autobiographer, known for her unique and pioneering autobiographical style. Her several volumes of autobiography explore the themes of economic, racial, and sexual oppression.
Maya was born on April 4, 1928, at St Louis, Missouri, the United States. Her parents divorced when she was three years old.
Maya and her brother Bailey were sent to live with her paternal grandmother in Arkansas. When she was just seven years old, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was later jailed, and was murdered after being released. According to Britannica, these traumatic experiences left her shattered and she remained completely mute for several years. During this period, her grandmother took care of her in Arkansas.
This early life was the focus of her first autobiographical work titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This book garnered critical acclaim and received a National Book Award nomination.
Maya’s interest in English language and the written word was evident from a very young age. Throughout her childhood, she wrote several poems, essays, and journals. Her poem Still I Rise has been repeated by generations now as words which instill hope and survival for the oppressed.
Before the start of World War II, Maya moved with her mother who was living in California. She attended George Washington School and took her dance and drama courses at California Labour School. According to Achievement.org, she was exposed to progressive ideals there that later influenced her political activism.
During the war, she tried to join the Women’s Army Corps, but her application was rejected because she was involved with California Labour School, which was said to have Communist ties. Then she applied for the job of a streetcar conductor. Her application was rejected so many times owing to many reasons, primary reason being her racial identity.
Maya’s tale of personal strength and childhood trauma caused by structural inequalities, resonated with the readers as the book gathered a large audience.
Maya was undeterred, and finally she was accepted and became the first black woman to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She graduated from Mission High School in the summer of 1944 and soon after gave birth to her only child, Clyde Bailey (Guy) Johnson.
Maya moved to New York in the late 1950s. She married a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopulos in 1952. When she started her career as a nightclub singer, she took the professional name Maya Angelou by combining her childhood nickname with a form of her husband’s name.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been translated into numerous languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide.
She joined Harlem Writers Guild in 1959, which was formed to nurture and support the publication of black authors. She also became active in the Civil Rights Movement. At the request of Martin Luther King Jr, she took the position as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1969, Maya Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography of her early life. Her tale of personal strength and childhood trauma caused by structural inequalities, resonated with the readers as the book gathered a large audience. Though many schools sought to ban the book for its frank depiction of sexual abuse, it struck a chord with several abuse survivors. This book helped them come out and tell their own stories.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been translated into numerous languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide. Subsequent volumes of Maya Angelou’s autobiography include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013).
Maya Angelou also wrote numerous poetry volumes. She was nominated for Pulitzer Prize for her poem Just Give me a Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971). She also recorded spoken albums of her poetry. She was awarded the Grammy for best-spoken album for the recorded piece of the poem On the Pulse of the Morning. She was awarded the Grammy again in 1995 and 2002.
Maya Angelou also wrote a book of meditations, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993), and children’s books that include My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994), Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (1998), and the Maya’s World series, which was published in 2004–05, and featured stories of children from various parts of the world.
In 1972, Maya Angelou became the first African American woman to have her screenplay turned into film with the production of Georgia, Georgia.
She was recognised both nationally and internationally for her contributions to literature. In 1981, Wake Forest University offered Maya Angelou the Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. President Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2000. In 2012, she was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Wake Forest University Writers Hall of Fame. The following year, she received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for outstanding service to the American literary community.
Maya Angelou was awarded over 30 honorary degrees in her lifetime.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Maya Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour.
She died on May 28, 2014.
Maya Angelou is an inspiration to many. According to Professor Deborah Lupton, sociologist and researcher, Maya Angelou blended her influential voice in her poems correspondingly to sustain her powerful independent identity as a black woman. She is one of the most effective feminist writers who exhibited her consciousness and awareness toward the racial power of the American society.
Maya Angelou’s indomitable stance against racism, injustice and rape resonated with people from all walks of life. Her whole purpose was to express her own vulnerable humanity through a series of painfully honest autobiographies so that others would feel empowered to express their own. She stood up for all women and inspired them not only to stand up for themselves but also to stand up for each other.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of how Maya Angelou’s works influenced women of that time?
How would you describe the contributions of Maya Angelou in the growth of feminism?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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