Maya Angelou Continues Making History in Death

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Courtesy of GPA Photo Archive (Flickr CC0)

Black history continues as Maya Angelou, acclaimed writer and civil rights activist, becomes the first Black woman to appear on the U.S. quarter. Throughout her lifetime, Angelou overcame tremendous traumas, contributed greatly to civil rights matters, and received many awards and accolades, but being the first Black woman to be featured on U.S. currency is her biggest achievement yet.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928, Angelou had a life that began in turmoil and disaster. At the young age of three, her parents, who had a tumultuous marriage, divorced causing her and her brother Bailey to be sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. While in Stamps, they experienced white supremacy and were forced to obey the deference to whites and racial discrimination imposed by law in southern states during that time.

Like many Blacks who suffered racial injustices, Angelou developed a deep religious faith and undertook the old-fashioned African American way of life. She credits her grandmother for instilling a wholesome and principled character that followed her all the days of her life. The values she learned were often times deeply reflected in her poetry and literary works, as she strongly believed in the power and virtue of the woman.

Being away from their parents meant that Angelou and her older brother relied very heavily on each other and they developed a very close bond. He had a stutter and struggled with pronouncing her name so, with the help of a book he read about the Maya Indians, he gave her the nickname Maya.

At the age of seven, while visiting her mother in Chicago, she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. This traumatizing event left her feeling too ashamed to tell any of the adults in her life, so she confided in her only friend — her brother. After confiding in him, her attacker was later killed by their uncle, and with the belief that her words killed the man, Angelou became mute for over 5 years.

Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival (Flickr CC0)

Being mute did not last long, as Angelou began speaking again at the age of 13 when she also attended “Mission High School and won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School, where she was exposed to the progressive ideals that animated her later political activism.”

While in high school, Angelou became pregnant with her son, Guy, and gave birth to him just three weeks after graduating from high school.

Life as a single mother was very difficult, as Angelou supported herself and her son by working as a waitress and cook, but she never gave up on her dance, music, performance, and poetic talents.

In 1952, she married a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopoulos, took on a form of his last name, coupled with her childhood nickname, and became Maya Angelou. Even though her marriage did not last, Angelou kept her name and began her career as a nightclub singer.

Angelou’s performing career flourished and she “toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess in 1954 and 1955. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows, and recorded her first record album, Calypso Lady, in 1957.”

Her myriad of talents continued as she wrote song lyrics and poems and eventually went to New York to join the Harlem Writers Guild. “The Harlem Writers Guild is dedicated to presenting the experiences of people of the African Diaspora through the written word.” As a member, Angelou “took her place among the growing number of young black writers and artists associated with the Civil Rights Movement.”

During the 1960s, Angelou and her son traveled abroad where she “read and studied voraciously, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and the West African language Fanti.” She returned to the United States in 1964 with the intention of helping Malcolm X build his new Organization of African American Unity. However, shortly after her arrival, Malcolm X was assassinated and his dreams died with him.

Courtesy of York College ISLGP (Flickr CC0)

Angelou continued in her efforts toward civil rights and she began working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who requested that she serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. After being devastated by the assassination of Dr. King, Angelou, with the help of her dear friend novelist James Baldwin, found solace in writing and gave birth to “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

The book told the story of her childhood in Arkansas and highlighted personal strength amid childhood trauma and racism. It went on to be published in several languages and sold over a million copies worldwide while also being nominated for the National Book Award.

Seemingly overnight, Angelou became a huge sensation and was in high demand as a teacher, lecturer, and in various political positions.

“Angelou was invited by successive Presidents of the United States to serve in various capacities. President Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, and President Carter invited her to serve on the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman. President Clinton requested that she compose a poem to read at his inauguration in 1993. Angelou’s reading of her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” was broadcast live around the world.”

Her many awards and achievements include the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 2000 and the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal in 2008. In 2011, a few years before her death, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor. Now, in 2022, eight years after her death, Angelou continues to be honored.

“In 2021, the United States Mint announced that an image of Maya Angelou would appear on the reverse side of a new quarter in place of the customary eagle. The Maya Angelou 25-cent piece, along with one featuring astronaut Sally Ride, will be the first in a series of coins honoring the achievements of American women.”

The new coin will “feature Angelou from the hips up, with her arms uplifted, a bird in flight, and a rising sun behind her,” which is the perfect depiction of her poetry and literary writings such as “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman.” This incredibly phenomenal woman deserves to be honored by having her picture featured on U.S. currency, as it is not only an illustration of her remarkable contributions to the richness of black history, but it also serves as a blueprint that will hopefully encourage more Blacks, both men, and women, to pick up the torch and keep the fire burning for Black excellence.

Poems by Maya Angelou:

“Still I Rise”

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

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

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

“Phenomenal Woman”

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Written by Hyleia Kidd
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware


Academy of Achievers: Maya Angelou: America’s Renaissance Woman
The Washington Post: Maya Angelou to become the first Black woman to appear on U.S. quarter as Treasury rollout begins; by Annabelle Timsit
National Women’s History Museum: Maya Angelou; by Dr. Kelly A. Spring; Updated by Mariana Brandman
Poetry Foundation: Still I Rise; by Maya Angelou
Poetry Foundation: Phenomenal Woman by: Maya Angelou

Top and Featured Image Courtesy of GPA Photo Archive’s Flickr – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival’s Flickr – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of York College ISLGP’s Flickr – Creative Commons License

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