The story of an extraordinary woman
How a woman with very humble beginnings and no college education became world renowned professor of literature/American studies, ended up having more than 50 honorary degrees and earned the highest civilian honor/award-the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her Father was doorman and a navy dietician and her mother was a nurse and a card dealer. She grew up in St. Louis Missouri (with her parents) and Stamps Arkansas (with her paternal grandmother) after her parents separated when she was 3 years old. After few years her father moved her and her brother to live with their mother in St. Louis. At age seven she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. This traumatic event devastated her and she wouldn’t speak for five years. With a lot of help and encouragement from one of her teachers she started to speak again. This same teacher is credited by her for introducing her to the writings of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe among others whose literary works forever changed the trajectory of her life in an imaginable way.
When she was 14 she and her brother moved to Oakland California to live with her mother. She studied music and drama at San Francisco labor school and graduated at the age of 17. Before graduating she worked as the first black female street car conductor. Few weeks after graduation she gave birth to her first and only son.
Adulthood and early careers
In 1951 she married Tosh Angelos, a Greek electrician, former sailor and fellow aspiring musician. Her first marriage ended in 1954. She supported herself by working as waitress, dancer, singer, actor, cook and the likes. During 1954 and 1955 she toured Europe with a production of an opera and she was determined to learn the language of every country she visited and within few years she was proficient in many languages. With the popularity of Calypso music she recorded her first album MISS CALYPSO in 1957. She also sang and performed her own songs in the film CALYPSO HEAT WAVE.
Early literary influence
In 1959 she met writer James Killens who encouraged her to move to New York to focus on her writing where she joined the Harlem writers’ guild and met several authors and was able to publish for the first time. In 1960 she met Martin Luther King Jr. and with her friend James Killens organized fund raising for Southern Christian Leadership and later she became northern coordinator of the organization.
She also began anti-apartheid activism during this time.
Move to Africa
In 1961 she met a South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Cairo where she worked as associate editor of the Arab observer newspaper. In 1962 she broke up with Make and moved to Accra Ghana with her son so that he could attend college, unfortunately he was seriously injured in car accident. She worked as administrator of University of Ghana, editor of the African Review, freelance writer for Ghanaian Times, writer and broadcaster for Radio Ghana, actress/performer at Ghanaian National Theatre. She stayed in Ghana until 1965. During her stay in abroad she read, studied and mastered several languages including French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic and West African language Fanti.
Back to America
During his visit to Ghana she met Malcom X in early 1960s and moved back to America in mid 1960s to help him build his new organization of African American Unity. Shortly afterward he was assassinated and the organization dissolved. She was later asked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to serve as Northern Coordinator for Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 and she was devastated.
Major Creative Breakthrough and literary accomplishments
Despite all the enormous tragedies and substantial challenges in her life, with the help of her writer friend James Baldwin she started writing again. In 1968 she wrote, produced and narrated a 10 part series of documentaries called BLACKS, BLUES, BLACK about the connection between blues music and African American Heritage. With this work she demonstrated the breadth and depth of her literary imagination and creative genius. She also published her first autobiography I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS in 1969 to international acclaim and enormous success. The list of her published verse, non-fiction, and fiction now includes more than 30 bestselling titles. A trailblazer in film and television, she wrote the screenplay and composed the song for the 1972 film Georgia. Her script, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She continued to appear on television and in films including the landmark television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) and John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993). In 1996, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta. In 2008, she composed poetry for and narrated the award-winning documentary The Black Candle, directed by M.K. Asante.
She has served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and has received 3 Grammy Awards. President Clinton requested that she compose a poem to read at his inauguration in 1993 and her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” was broadcast live around the world. She was awarded the presidential medal of freedom , the highest civilian award/honor by President Barak Obama in 2011.
Dr. Angelou has received over 50 honorary degrees and was Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Her words and actions continue to stir our imagination, energize our bodies, liberate our minds, and heal our wounds.
Dr. Maya Angelou died Wednesday May 28, 2014 at the age of 86 and may her soul rest in peace.
Summary by Solomon Feyissa, M.D.