Dr Maya Angelou – Celebrated Poet, Memoirist and Civil Rights Activist
“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.” Maya Angelou
Dr Maya Angelou became one of the most celebrated and leading voices of our time. She was the first African American woman who publicly discussed her personal life through her book “I know why the caged bird sings”. The book covers her eventful childhood up until age 16 when she gave birth to her son, Guy. This was the first of seven autobiographies that she wrote through her life time.
The title of Dr Angelou’s most famous autobiography came from the third stanza of Paul Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”. Dr Angelou admired his works for many years, and also credited him and William Shakespeare with forming her “writing ambition”. The title was suggested by civil rights activist and jazz vocalist Abby Lincoln.
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings”
– Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Dr Angelou was born on April 4th 1928 as Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. She spent her formative years in the harsh segregated Stamps, Arkansas with her parental grandmother, Annie Henderson, and her kind but cripple uncle, Willie. At the age of three, after her parents’ divorce, Maya and her brother, Bailey (who gave her the nickname Maya), were sent to live with their grandmother. Her grandmother, who owned the general store in black Stamps, helped Maya to develop pride and self-confidence. However, at the age of seven, during a visit to her mother, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She told her brother about the rape. After testifying at Freeman’s trial, Freeman was found beaten to death (some belief at the hands of her uncles). In her seven-year-old mind, Maya though it was her voice that killed him and she refused to speak in public for five years as a result of her guilt and belief. It was during these years that she discovered poetry and her love of art when Mrs Flowers, an educated black woman from Stamps and friend of the family, introduced her to the literacy world. At the age of 13, Maya and her brother re-joined her mother in San Francisco. Maya’s love for art won her a scholarship to San Francisco’s Labor School where she studied dance and drama. It was during this time that she started to speak again. At age 14 she dropped out of school to become San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar conductor, but she returned to school shortly thereafter to complete her studies. She became pregnant in her senior year and at age 16 gave birth to her only son, Guy, a few weeks after her graduation. In order to support her and her son, she worked as a night club dancer, a singer, a prostitute and a fry cook, while not giving up on her talents for music, dance, performance and poetry.
In 1950 she married a Greek sailor, Tony Angelos, but the marriage did not last long. She moved to New York City to continue her study of dance, later returning to San Francisco to sing at the Purple Onion Cabaret where she was noticed by talent scouts. She toured Europe from 1954 to 1955 as a member of the cast in the touring production Porgy and Bess. She recorded her first album in 1957 named Calypso Lady.
She was also known for her ability to write lyrics and perform spoken word. She collaborated with Quincy Jones writing lyrics for B.B. King in the film For Love of Ivy, a Sidney Poitier film.
Dr Maya Angelou has won three Grammys: Best Spoken Word Album, Best Spoken Word or Non Musical Album 1993 for On the Pulse of Morning, Grammy for Best Spoken Word or Non Musical Album, 1995 for Phenomenal Woman, Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album, 2000 for A Song Flung up to Heaven.
Moving back to New York, Dr Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild in 1958 and under the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she started to write the first book, “I know why the caged bird sings” which was published in 1970. The book received international acclaim. However, it was banned in many schools at the time due to her open honest writing of her rape, a long taboo topic in the culture at that time. During her time in New York, she acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom. She was also the first African-American woman to write a script that was filmed. She wrote the screenplay and composed the score of the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia which received a Pulitzer Price. She also appeared in Alex Haley’s series, Roots (1977) and John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993). She directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta, in 1996.
Dr Angelou also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die, which was published in 1971. She later wrote the poem “On the Pulse of Morning”—one of her most famous works—which she recited at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She was the first person to recite a poem at an inauguration since 1961 when Robert Frost recite his poem at President John F Kennedy’s inauguration. The recording of the poem won a Grammy Award.
In 1960 Dr Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt with South African civil right activist, Vusumzi Make. She served as the editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. Their relationship ended and she and her son moved on to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School for Music and Drama, wrote The Ghanaian Times and was feature editor for The African Review. During her time abroad she read and studied with enthusiasm. Dr Angelou was fluent in six languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Western African Fanti.
Whilst in Ghana, Dr Angelou met Malcolm X and in 1964 returned to America to help him build his new organization of African-American Unity. He was assassinated shortly after her return and the organization dissolved. She also counted Dr Martin Luther King Jr as one of her friends, and was devastated when he was assassinated on her birthday in 1968. He asked her to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She has continued her works in civil rights and she is also recognized as an international ambassador for goodwill crossing lines of race and culture.
In 2011 President Barak Obama presented Dr Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
Dr Angelou died at home in Winston-Harlem, Northern Carolina on 28 May 2014 at the age of 86 but her voice continues to live on in her poems and memoirs.
On The Pulse Of Morning – Poem by Maya Angelou
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers-
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Phenomenal Woman – Poem by Maya Angelou
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Researcher: Riette van Zyl