Maya Angelou ( 1928-2014)
Acclaimed for her powerful autobiographies, poetry, teaching and essays, Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis. While young children, she and her brother were put on a train in California without parents and sent to Stamps. Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother. There she formed a bond with her strong grandmother, but had to endure the prejudice from the white people who lived in Stamps. She and her brother then went back to St. Louis, where at the age of 7, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. When the man was murdered by relatives for his crime, the little girl felt responsible for his death and for 5 years was almost completely mute, speaking only to her brother. Despite not speaking, Angelou developed a love for language and literature and read widely. Finally at about the age of 12, a gifted and sympathetic teacher convinced her to speak again, instilled in her a love of learning and the importance of the spoken word. Angelou was a gifted student and graduated at the top of her elementary school class. She never forgot the teacher--Mrs. Flowers- and recalled her in one of her children's books, "Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship."
Angelou graduated from George Washington High School in San Francisco at 17, the mother of a son. She then took on a series of jobs: street car conductor, dancer, short order cook and dinner cook in a Creole restaurant. A marriage to an ex-sailor failed. She studied dance in New York, then returned to San Francisco to sing in a cabaret. From 1954-55 she was a member of the cast of a touring production of "Porgy and Bess."
During the late 1950's she sang in nightclubs before returing to New York to continue her stage career. While in New York, she met James Baldwin and heard Dr. Martin Luther King speak. She decided to become part of the struggle for civil rights and worked for Dr. King. After her work with Dr. King she moved to Africa with her son and worked as an editor. When she returned to the United States in the mid-60's she was encouraged to work on an autobiography. While at first reluctant, she eventually wrote
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." The book was about her childhood and the birth of her son. This book is the first of six autobiographies. She also published volumes of poetry. One collection, published in 1971 was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. While writing, she continued her career in film and television. She helped adapt her first autobiography for a T.V. movie
Angelou wrote and gave the first inaugural poem in 1990 for President Bill Clinton During the 1990's she wrote several books for children and multiple collections of essays Over the years she recited her poems to many audiences, stressing the individual's response to hardship and oppression and loss. In 2000, she received the National Medal of Arts and in 2010 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
Maya Angelou died in Winston-Salem North Carolina in 2014 after teaching for many years as a professor at Wake Forest University. She was 86 years old.