BLACK HISTORY MONTH Honoree: Maya Angelou

3rd of a series…

By Allan Jamail

North Channel Star freelance writer Allan Jamail said, “I’ve chosen Maya Angelou for my third week’s recognition of 2024 Black History Month. I’ve chosen her because she’s an African American who is most deserving for her courage and struggles to climb up on the rough side of life’s mountain to gain prominence.”

Three years before her death in 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, and died at 86 on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

She had an older brother, Bailey Johnson Jr. At the age of seventeen, she gave birth to her only child, a son, Clyde Johnson (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson). Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya,” derived from “My” or “Mya Sister”.

When Angelou was three and her brother four, their parents’ disastrous marriage ended, and their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In stark contrast to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time, Angelou’s grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II, because she owned the only general store in the African American community which sold basic and needed commodities.

Four years later, when Angelou was seven, her father sent her and her brother back to their birthplace in their mother’s care in St. Louis. While living there with her mother, she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother the man’s name, who told the rest of their family. The man was jailed for four days, and shortly after his release he was found murdered, some said by her uncles.

She was so traumatized by the experience she quit talking for years. Later she said, “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.”

A year later, Angelou was eight and her brother nine. They again were sent to Annie Henderson, their grandmother in Stamps, AR. She attended the Lafayette County Training School, a Rosenwald School (1 of 5,000) built for educating African Americans. She credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again, challenging her by saying: “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it.”

Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors who would affect Angelou’s life and career, as well as Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.

When Angelou was 14 and her brother 15, she and her brother moved in once again with their mother, who had since moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, Angelou attended the California Labor School. At the age of 16, she became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She wanted the job badly, admiring the uniforms of the operators so much so that her mother referred to it as her “dream job.”

Later she worked intermittently as a cocktail waitress, a cook, and a dancer. It was as a dancer that she assumed her professional name.

Maya changed her name from Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1954 while performing at San Francisco’s Purple Onion. In 1952, she married a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopulos; she decided to use the name “Maya Angelou” because it was distinctive. She combined the nickname her brother had given her with a new last name she derived from her former husband’s surname.

In her twenties in the late 1950’s she moved to New York City, Angelou found encouragement for her literary talents at the Harlem Writers’ Guild. About the same time, she landed a featured role in a State Department-sponsored production of George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess; with this troupe she toured 22 countries in Europe and Africa.

She also studied dance with Martha Graham and Pearl Primus. In 1961 she performed in Jean Genet’s play The Blacks. That same year she was persuaded by a South African dissident to move to Cairo, Egypt, where she worked for the Arab Observer. She later moved to Ghana and worked on The African Review.

After hearing civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. speak for the first time in 1960, she was inspired to join the Civil Rights Movement. She organized several benefits for him, and he named her Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She worked for Malcolm X shortly before his assassination in 1965.

In 1968, King asked her to organize a march, but he too was assassinated on April 4, which also happened to be her birthday.

For many years, Angelou responded to King’s murder by not celebrating her birthday, instead choosing to meet with, call, or send flowers to his widow, Coretta Scott King. Her early life is the focus of her first autobiographical work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” which gained critical acclaim and a National Book Award nomination. She picked that title from “Sympathy” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It’s a symbolic poem that presents a stark comparison between cruel slavery versus joyous freedom. Using the metaphor of a bird, Dunbar highlights the importance of freedom. Maya used the same metaphor of a caged bird to express that even though she had suffered abuse, she would survive by fighting back, just as a caged bird still sings and fights for its freedom.

Three of her sayings are:

“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.”

“You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but like air, I’ll still rise.”

“I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”

In 1966 she wrote Black, Blues, Black (aired 1968), a 10-part television series about the role of African culture in American life. As the writer of the movie drama Georgia, Georgia (1972), she became one of the first African American women to have a screenplay produced as a feature film.

She also acted in such movies as Poetic Justice (1993) and How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and appeared in several television productions, including the miniseries Roots (1977).

Angelou received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in Look Away (1973), despite the fact that the play closed on Broadway after only one performance.

In 1998 she made her directorial debut with Down in the Delta (1998). The documentary Maya Angelou and Still I Rise (2016) depicts her life through interviews with Angelou and her intimates and admirers.

Subsequent volumes of 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). In 2014, Angelou received a lifetime achievement award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials as part of a session billed “Women Who Move the Nation.”

Among numerous honors was her invitation to compose and deliver a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” for the inauguration of U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton in 1993. She celebrated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” (1995) and elegized Nelson Mandela in the poem “His Day Is Done” (2013), which was commissioned by the U.S. State Department and released in the wake of the South African leader’s death.

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