“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,” prolific words from the remarkable force, known as Maya Angelou. Indeed the poet, writer, author, civil rights activist, playwright, dancer, and singer has left a blistering affect on humankind with her wisdom, poetry, and prose. This legendary powerhouse has written more than 36 books 17 of which were bestsellers), has traveled the world before the age of 30, spoke 4 different languages, and was the first female and African American to recite a poem at a Presidential Inauguration. Throughout her career, she has gracefully demonstrated a remarkable ability to translate the African American experience, highlighting its struggles, strengths, humanity, and dignity. In 2011, President Barack Obama bestowed upon her the honorary Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents moved to Long Beach California shortly after her birth. Her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, was a nurse, merchant seaman, and professional card dealer. Her father, Bailey Johnson Sr., served in the United States Navy and worked in the kitchen of a Naval Hospital. He had been in France during World War I and had also worked as a hotel doorman in Santa Monica. Maya’s elder brother, Bailey Jr. give her the nickname Maya.
At the ages of 3 and 4, Maya and Bailey Jr. were sent to live with their paternal Grandmother Annie Henderson in Stamps Arkansas, after their parents divorced. They were shipped by train, with their tickets pinned to the inside of Bailey Jr.’s coat pocket. Their overseers were the train attendants.
Maya’s grandmother owned the only general store in the small town of Stamps. It was called Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, which provided food, produce, and everyday consumer goods. Under her grandmother’s guardianship, both Maya and Bailey Jr. were accountable for daily chores at the store, as well as, staying on track of their schoolwork. Maya and Bailey Jr. were avid readers and demonstrated real promise in the world of academia.
In 1935, at the age of 7, Maya’s father arrived in Stamps unexpectedly to take Maya and her brother to St Louis Missouri to live with their mother. Maya enjoyed the thrill of the fast pace city, and being united with kin. However, after a year in St. Louis, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, “Mr. Freeman.” After the incident had taken place, he threatened to kill anybody that Maya told. Therefore she attempted to keep the incident a secret from family, until she fell noticeably ill, and her soiled underwear was discovered from underneath the bed.
During the court trial, Maya gave her account of what happened. As an eight year old, she felt divided on how to address the interrogating questions from which the defense lawyer darted at her. The rape was evident, however, she had not been fully capable of expressing the fact that “Mr. Freeman” had touched her inappropriately on multiple accounts. As a result of the trial, the court had sentenced Mr. Freeman to one year and one day in jail. However, he never got a chance to serve his time and was released the same afternoon. Four days later, he was found dead (possibly killed by Maya’s protective uncles).
When Maya was informed about her rapist’s death, she decided to stop talking, fearing that her words had killed a man. She became virtually mute for about five years. In 1937, she and Bailey Jr. were sent back to Stamps to live with their grandmother again. Her absence of speech, broadened her love from language.
In 1942, she was introduced to Bertha Flowers , a classy educated black woman, who took a special interest in Maya. Mrs. Flowers sought permission from Maya’s grandmother to have Maya over for tea and cookies one afternoon. Mrs. Flowers knew the mute girl could read voraciously, but as she explained to Maya that afternoon, “words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” During their meeting, Mrs. Flowers read ” A Tale of Two Cities” out loud, and for the first time in her life Maya had heard poetry. Mrs Flowers asked Maya did she like it and Maya responded audibly with “Yes Ma’am.” She was then given a book of poems and instructed to memorize one of them, and was asked to recite it at their next meeting.
Maya credits Mrs. Flowers with helping her to speak again. She began to memorize and recite poems by William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. These authors had an affect on her life and career.
Maya graduated at the top of her eighth grade class. After graduation, she and her brother rejoined their mother, who had moved to San Francisco. She attended George Washington High School and won a scholarship to study drama and dance at the California Labor School. She found work as a streetcar conductor and was the first African American woman to hold that type of job.
At age 17, Maya graduated from high school and three weeks later, gave birth to her son, Clyde Bailey Johnson, who later changed his name to Guy Johnson. As she explained in her third autobiography, “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas” she held odd jobs and “worked as a shake dancer in night clubs, fry cook in hamburger joints, dinner cook in a Creole restaurant and once had a job in a mechanic’s shop, taking the paint off cars with my hands.”
In 1950, she married a Greek former sailor, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos. During this time, she took modern dance classes and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Maya and Ailey formed a dance team, calling themselves “Al and Rita”, and performed modern dance at fraternal black organizations throughout San Francisco. Maya, her new husband, and her son moved to New York City so she could study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
After Maya’s marriage ended in 1954, she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco, including the Purple Onion, where she sang and danced to calypso music. Up to that point she went by the name of “Marguerite Johnson”, or “Rita”, but at the strong persuasion of her managers and supporters, she changed her stage name to “Maya Angelou” (combining her nickname and former married surname). It was a name of distinction, which set her apart and captured the feel of her calypso dance performances.
In 1954, her career as a performer began to take off. She landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, and performed in 22 countries from 1954 to 1955. She later appeared in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave and released her first album, Miss Calypso in 1957.
A year later, she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild where she met James Baldwin and other important writers. In 1961, Maya appeared in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson. She soon joined the civil rights movement, where she had the opportunity to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. Inspired by his message, she decided to help the fight for civil rights. She was offered a position as the northern coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit to the organization.
Following her work for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she met Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter, and moved with him and her son to Cairo Egypt. She worked as an associate editor for the Arab Observer. In 1962, after her relationship with Make ended, she moved to Accra Ghana, where her son had planned to attend college. However, he was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Maya remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1964. She worked as an administrator at the University of Ghana, and was active in the African-American expatriate community called “Revolutionist Returnees” exploring pan-Africanism.
In 1964, she returned back to the United States to work as an organizer for Malcolm X. She was helping him to build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Unfortunately the organization was disbanded after Malcolm X’s assassination the following year.
Despite having almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated “Blacks, Blues, Black!.” It was a ten-part series of documentaries about the connection between blues music and black Americans’ African heritage, and what Maya called the “Africanisms still current in the U.S.” The production aired in 1968 on The National Educational Television, a precursor of PBS.
The year 1968 was also the timeframe in which she helped in planning the Poor People’s Campaign in Memphis, Tennessee for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was assassinated on Maya’s 40th birthday. Devastated by the event, she stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta’s death in 2006.
While still in mourning over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, a close friend and fellow writer James Baldwin invited Maya to a party at the home of cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Feiffer’s wife, Judy, was inspired by Maya’s life stories and urged, Random House editor Robert Loomis to sign Maya to a contract. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.
Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a black woman to be produced. In 1977, she appeared in the television mini-series Roots. In 1998, she was the first African-American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta.
Maya’s long and extensive career also includes educator and public speaker. For a period of time, she lectured at UCLA. In 1982, she earned the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
She was selected by President Bill Clinton (fellow Arkansas native) to write and recite a poem for his Inauguration on January 20, 1993. She wrote “On the Pulse of Morning,” and with her public recitation, Maya became the second poet in history to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. She was also the very first woman and African American to do so.
On May 28, 2014, after experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Timeline of Awards Earned:
1970- Receives the Chubb Fellowship Award, Yale University
1972- Receives the Pulitzer Prize Nomination for Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die
1976- Receives the Ladies’ Home Journal Award (“Woman of the Year in Communication”)
1977- Receives the Golden Eagle Award, Afro-American in the Arts
1986- Receives Fulbright Program 40th Anniversary Distinguished Lecturer award
1991- Receives Langston Hughes Medal
1993- Grammy for “Best Spoken Word Album,” “On The Pulse of Morning,”
1996- Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy Association National Award
1998- Receives Audience Choice Award
2005- Receives NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category
2006- Receives Mother Teresa Award
2008- Becomes the first recipient of Hope for Peace and Justice Voice of Peace award
2009- Receives NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category
2011- Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Maya Angelou Quotes:
“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.”
“Nothing will work unless you do.”
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”
“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”
“I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves and tell me, ‘I love you.’ … There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”
“If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?”
“A woman’s heart should be so hidden in God that a man has to seek Him just to find her.”
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
“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”
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
Caged Bird Legend: https://www.mayaangelou.com/biography/
Maya Angelou Timeline: http://www.datesandevents.org/people-timelines/19-maya-angelou-timeline.htm
Wright State University: https://www.wright.edu/event/presidential-lecture-series/profile/dr-maya-angelou
Model: Jasmine Y. Mallory
Photography Credit: Kimberly Staples