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Maya Angelou, an essential voice in American literature and culture

Her life and work had a profound impact on literature and society, especially with regard to issues of race, gender, and trauma

Maya Angelou speaks during the AARP Magazine's 2011 Inspire Awards at Ronald Reagan Building on December 9, 2010 in Washington, DC
Maya Angelou speaks during the AARP Magazine's 2011 Inspire Awards at Ronald Reagan Building on December 9, 2010, in Washington, D.C.Kris Connor (Getty Images)
Alonso Martínez

Maya Angelou’s work and views are particularly relevant in today’s social climate. As a renowned writer, poet, and activist, she left an indelible mark on the literary world and on society as a whole. She was a trailblazer and still is a role model particularly for women and people of color, showing the importance of literacy and identity for African descendants and the power of one’s voice.

Angelou — who was born exactly 95 years ago — worked closely with figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and her poetry often spoke to the struggles of marginalized communities, partly through her literary work. Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a widely-read classic that explores her early years growing up in the Jim Crow South and has been credited with opening up conversations around sexual abuse and trauma, which she experienced during her childhood.

Childhood

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis Missouri on April 4, 1928. She was the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian and Vivian Johnson, a nurse and card dealer.

At the age of eight, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told about the abuse to her brother, who told the rest of the family. Freeman was tried and found guilty, but he was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release he was murdered, possibly by Angelou’s relatives.

After the event, Angelou became mute for almost five years. She stated: “I thought my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.” Marcia Ann Gillespie, who wrote a biography about Angelou, says that it was during this period when she developed her extraordinary memory, her passion for literature and the ability to listen and observe the world around her.

Shortly after Freeman’s death, Angelou was sent back with her brother to their grandmother in Stamps, where she attended the Lafayette County Training School. Bertha Flowers, a teacher and friend of her family, started working closely with her, introducing her to classic authors, as well as Black female artists. She also helped her speak again, challenging her by saying: “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it.”

At 16, after attending the California Labor School, she became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, a job she wanted badly. This is an example of how persistent she could be, and it reflected her ideals of growing as a person, independently of her past trauma.

During her early adulthood, she started studying modern dance, later performing professionally in San Francisco under the names Marguerite Johnson and Rita. There, her managers and supporters suggested she change her name to Maya Angelou, taking her nickname and her former married surname (from when she married Tosh Angelos, a Greek electrician and aspiring musician).

She toured Europe where she began to learn the language of every country she visited. Within a couple of years, she developed expertise in multiple languages, and her knowledge of culture and African-American history grew exponentially, shaping her worldview and informing much of her later work as a writer and activist. Maya Angelou’s ability to speak multiple languages allowed her to connect with people from diverse backgrounds and engage with different cultures, making her a powerful voice for social justice and cultural understanding.

Activism and writing

In 1959, after meeting novelist John Oliver Killens, she moved to New York to focus on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild where she met several African-American authors. During that time she published her first works. In 1960, she met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, organized an event to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was named its Northern Coordinator. After that she got more and more involved in activism.

She also became close friends with Malcolm X and helped him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity before he was assassinated. After that she kept focusing on her writing career.

In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. death, she wrote, produced and narrated plays like Blacks, Blues, Black!, a ten-part series of documentaries about the connection between blues music and Black Americans’ African heritage. One year later she would write her first autobiography and her most recognized work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a coming-of-age story where she talked about her childhood trauma and the racism she faced growing up, including her involvement and the lessons she learned in the Civil Rights Movement. The book also talks about independence, self-definition, identity and personal dignity. She was 40 years old when it was published.

The work was nominated for a National Book Award the next year and was acclaimed by critics, not only because of the themes but expanding and changing the autobiography genre, which she critiques. It has been used in educational settings, but it’s also been banned for its depiction of childhood rape, racism and sexuality.

This was the first of seven autobiographies Angelou wrote, which show her continuous exploration of black and African identity and her experiences meeting different people.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the most famous work by Maya Angelou. But her long and extensive career also includes several poems (her collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie won a Pulitzer prize), plays, screenplays for television and films, and also work as a director, actor and public speaker. Angelou made history in 1972 when her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, became the first-ever original script by a Black woman to be produced. In 1998, Angelou became the first African-American woman to direct a major motion picture with her work on Down in the Delta. Her work often focused on themes of resilience, hope, and the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. Through it, Angelou became an important voice for marginalized communities, leaving a legacy that will continue to live.

Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at the age of 86. Her son Guy Johnson stated: “She left this mortal plane with no loss of acuity and no loss in comprehension.”

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