Maya Angelou, a legendary poet, writer, and tireless activist, among many other talents, experienced tremendous accomplishments in her life despite obstacles. She now leaves behind her story; a powerful legacy for current and future generations to learn from and appreciate.
Dr. Angelou followed her passions and was a singer, dancer, actress, producer, director, playwright, and dramatist. She was also a teacher and historian. The words, actions and voice of Maya Angelou continue to heal, deeply inspire and liberate people, while bringing them closer together in life and the sharing of humanity.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou got the nickname Maya from her older brother Bailey, with whom she was very close. Bailey had a stutter and was unable to pronounce his sister’s name so he began calling her “My” for “my sister.” After reading a book about the Maya Indians a few years later Bailey started calling her Maya, which stuck with her.
Dr. Angelou suffered many hardships during her life beginning with her childhood. When she was three years old her parents sent her and her brother to Stamps, Arkansas to live with the person who would become a driving force in her life, her grandmother Annie Henderson. Here she experienced racial discrimination and was sexually molested at the age of seven by a man that her mother was involved with while she was visiting her in Chicago. The young Angelou overheard the police telling her mother about the man being found dead shortly after his release from jail. Because she had confided in her brother about the molestation, she felt her voice was responsible for the man’s death and did not speak for five years.
When Maya was 13 she began to speak again. She and her brother went to San Francisco to live with their mother, whom she called “Lady.” Angelou made an agreement with her mother to call her “Lady” because, according to young Maya, she was beautiful and sounded like a lady. Angelou admitted her mother won her over in time because she was funny and kind; she eventually began to call her “Mom.”
While in San Francisco Maya dropped out of school at age 14, where she’d earned an art and dance scholarship, and became the first African American female cable car conductor, thus initiating a long list of accomplishments that would span her lifetime. Upon returning to school she became pregnant with her only son Guy and left home at age 16 to live the life of a single, working mother.
Dr. Angelou married a Greek sailor in 1952, although the marriage did not last she took a form of his last name Angelopulos, and professionally became Maya Angelou. Her career thrived where her marriage had failed. She traveled around Europe on tour with the production Porgy and Bess, recorded her first album in 1957 called Calypso Lady and continuously wrote poetry and song lyrics.
Next, Angelou relocated to New York, joined the Harlem Writers Guild and became associated with the Civil Rights Movement. In 1960 Angelou left the United States but continued to build on her list of astounding accomplishments. She mastered numerous languages including: Arabic, Italian, French, Spanish, and Fanti, a language of West Africa. Maya became editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt while living there. She also met and befriended Nelson Mandela in the city in 1962. She and her son later went to live in Ghana where she worked as an assistant administrator of the Music and Drama Department at the University of Ghana. She also wrote for two Ghanaian media outlets.
While in Ghana she became acquainted with Malcolm X and eventually planned to start the Organization of African American Unity, as his more mature vision of the African American situation in the United States became more in line with her own. In 1964, before they could make it happen, Malcolm was assassinated.
Next, Angelou began working more closely with Dr. Martin Luther King; he recommended that she become northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1968 when he was assassinated on her birthday, she was crushed and refused to celebrate it for years afterward. She did, however, send flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for over 30 years, until Mrs. King passed away in 2006.
Following King’s assassination Maya Angelou continued to add to her list of achievements and accomplishments as her story continued to unfold, and the legacy that she has now left behind grew exponentially. She threw herself into her work and began her groundbreaking autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The extremely successful book was published in 1970 and had a record two-year run on the New York Times bestseller list. It tells her life story from birth to age 17 when she gave birth to her son. She published a series of five more autobiographies that culminated in 2002 with A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
The 1970s brought many awards for the writer and humanitarian along with her first meeting with the person who would become her close friend, Oprah Winfrey. Angelou began to gain national acclaim and recognition as books with her poetry and her autobiography were published. In 1971 she published Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die, which is a collection of her poetry. It was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. In 1972 she continued to make history when she composed the score and wrote the screenplay for the film Georgia, Georgia. This was the first screenplay by an African American woman to be filmed. It was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Angelou won a Tony award in 1973 for her role in the play Look Away. She also received an Emmy nomination for her work on the Roots miniseries in 1977.
This decade brought about numerous other achievements for Maya Angelou. She earned a Coretta Scott King Honor and a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy. She was appointed to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission by President Gerald Ford in 1975. President Jimmy Carter also requested Angelou’s service on the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman.
In 1981 Angelou received a lifetime appointment at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as Reynolds Professor of American Studies. Throughout the 80s she continued to win awards for her various achievements. In 1993 she became only the second poet to ever do a recitation at a presidential inauguration. President Bill Clinton made the request to which she responded with one of her most famous works, her poem On the Pulse of the Morning. The audio version of the poem earned her a Grammy Award for best spoken word album.
Angelou directed several documentaries and the 1996 film Down in the Delta. Numerous honors were bestowed upon Angelou in the 1990s, including a Grammy Award for the performance of her poem Phenomenal Women. The accolades continued well into the 2000s beginning with the Presidential Medal of the Arts, which was awarded to her in 2000. In 2002 she won another Grammy for her audio book and sixth autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven. In 2005 and 2009 she received two National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards for her cookbook Hallelujah The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes and Letter to My Daughter, an inspirational advice book for young women. Angelou was also given the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal in 2008. She published another cookbook in 2010 called Great Food, All Day Long. She also created products for Hallmark which included items from greeting cards to accessories with her own personal touch.
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, this was something that Maya Angelou thought that she would never see. An African-American president would never happen in her lifetime, she once told Dr. Martin Luther King. In 2011, President Obama bestowed upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the highest honor given a civilian in the United States. In 2012, Angelou was shocked and awed when First Lady Michelle Obama presented her with the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Honors award. Angelou said that the first lady talked about her work and the impact that it had on her and the president. “I thought my heart would burst” said Angelou.
On Dr. Angelou’s 80th birthday two of her close friends and her niece presented her with a gift that they had created. It was an honorary book that detailed her life and career entitled Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration.
The scope of Maya Angelou’s work and achievements is very extensive. She has published more than 30 works and received over 50 honorary degrees. The renowned Maya Angelou had strong familial bonds and shared a special relationship with her very wise grandmother Annie who once told her “Mama know when you and the good Lord are ready sister, you’re gonna teach all over the world.”
Dr. Angelou continued to work tirelessly even as a senior. She wrote, directed, acted and was an esteemed professor whose seminars students vied for admission into. In 2013 she wrote the poem His Day is Done for Nelson Mandela, upon his passing.
Angelou dared to toe the line for her beliefs in humanity, the human spirit, and the African American people throughout her time on this Earth, but especially during a time when racism, prejudice, discrimination, and hatred were common and considered normal. The sorrow and obstacles that she faced and overcame with a certain grace and spirit, has helped inspire people of all kinds around the globe. Her powerful words and works were a guiding light that expressed love, human connection, and wisdom. They nurtured and endlessly strived to teach her audience painful truths while instilling the value and joy of life along with the necessity of loving and appreciating each other.
The accomplishments of Maya Angelou and the story behind this influential woman are timeless pieces of history that leave behind a mighty legacy which will continue to inspire and enrich the lives of people around the world. Her passion for life, her work, and her fellow human beings is a large and lasting part of the legend that is Maya Angelou.
By Twanna Harps