“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. Angelou had a difficult childhood. Her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their father’s mother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.
As an African American, Angelou experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas. She also suffered at the hands of a family associate around the age of 7: During a visit with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. So traumatized by the experience, Angelou stopped talking. She returned to Arkansas and spent years as a virtual mute.
During World War II, Angelou moved to San Francisco, California, where she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School. Also during this time, Angelou became the first black female cable car conductor—a job she held only briefly, in San Francisco.
In 1944, a 16-year-old Angelou gave birth to a son, Guy (a short-lived high school relationship had led to the pregnancy), thereafter working a number of jobs to support herself and her child.
In 1952, the future literary icon wed Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor from whom she took her professional name—a blend of her childhood nickname, “Maya,” and a shortened version of his surname.
MAYA ANGElOU’S GREAT LEGACY
Maya Angelou was an author, poet, historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, stage and screen producer, director, performer, singer, and civil rights activist.
In the late 1950s, Angelou became involved in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
In 1959, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1961 to 1962 she was associate editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East, and from 1964 to 1966 she was feature editor of the African Review in Accra, Ghana.
Angelou returned to the United States in the mid-1960s and again found herself in the circle of civil rights activists. King, Rustin and Randolph had turned their focus toward economic justice issues, developing a “Freedom Budget For All Americans” that had as its goals:
* The abolition of poverty
* guaranteed full employment
* Fair prices for farmers
* Fair wages for workers
* Housing and healthcare for all
* The establishment of a progressive tax and fiscal policies that respected the needs of working families.
She published her first autobiographical novel, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, in 1970. Angelou was among the first black women to reach this kind of literary success–speaking publicly about her personal life, and casting herself as heroine in her own story.
In 1971, she wrote the original screenplay and musical score for the film Georgia, Georgia, and was both author and executive producer of a five-part television miniseries “Three Way Choice.” She also wrote and produced several prize-winning documentaries, including “Afro-Americans in the Arts,” a PBS special for which she received the Golden Eagle Award.
In 1974, she was appointed by Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and later by Jimmy Carter to the Commission for International Woman of the Year.
Angelou went on to receive over 30 honorary doctorate degrees and accepted a lifetime appointment in 1982 as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
One of Angelou’s most famous works is the poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she wrote especially for and recited at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ceremony in January 1993 as the first African-American woman and second poet to present at an inauguration. —marking the first inaugural recitation since 1961, when Robert Frost delivered his poem “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Angelou went on to win a Grammy Award (best spoken word album) for the audio version of the poem.
In 1995, Angelou was lauded for remaining on The New York Times‘ paperback nonfiction best-seller list for two years—the longest-running record in the chart’s history.
Seeking new creative challenges, Angelou made her directorial debut in 1998 with Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard. She also wrote a number of inspirational works, from the essay collection Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1994) to her advice for young women in Letter to My Daughter (2008). Interested in health, Angelou has even published cookbooks, including Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes (2005) and Great Food, All Day Long (2010).
In 2000, she received the National Medal of Arts, and in 2010 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was eighty-six (86).
She has left a legacy behind as one of the most positive, respected and influential African American of all times. She leaves behind a body of important artistic work that influenced several generations. Angelou was one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life.
Maya Angelou’s life would continue to mirror the American landscape paving the way for a firsthand experience with racism, single parenting, over-coming poverty, seeking higher education, creating wealth, living through and participating in the civil rights movement.
“Hold those things that tell your history and protect them. During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important. It says: ‘I was here. I may be sold tomorrow. But you know I was here.” —Maya Angelou
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou