Maya Angelou: A Voice That Moved A Nation

Maya Angelou is an American poet, writer, actress, and civil rights activist. Maya Angelou is most known for her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969 which details her life in her eyes in hindsight. With this Novel, she etched her name in history. She became the first African-American woman to have a non-fiction best-selling book. Maya Angelou’s novel was enough of an achievement to last a lifetime, but he did not stop there. From her birth in 1928 till her death at the age of 86, she became very close friends with Nelson Mandela long before he was incarcerated, she joined forces with figures such a W. E. B Du Bois and Malcolm X, she inaugurated Bill Clinton, and personally lobbied for same-sex marriage rights. Maya Angelou was a force that moved American life. She moved mountains with nothing but words of love.

Angelou described her childhood as an “. . . an unnecessary insult'. She claimed that “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her difference is worse.” Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced each other when she was only three years old at the time of their split. Her parents split forced her and her older brother to travel to the southern town of Stamps, Arkansas. Her Autobiography starts off at the age of seven after four years in the South. Her time in the south ingrained in her mind that she was not as good as her Caucasian counterparts. At this time in her life, she envisioned that she “. . . was really white and a cruel magician had turned [her] into a too-big Negro girl, with kinky black hair, broad feet, and a space between her teeth that would hold a pencil.” Maya Angelou’s childhood was not only a constant fight to not be different, but also a sad story of sexual abuse. In her novel, she describes the sexual relationship that she had with her mother’s boyfriend at the time. Except she was only eight years only she had not a clue what sex was. Angelou says “He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn’t let me go. I felt at home. From the way he was holding me I knew he’d never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last.” This incident severely stunted her emotional growth and led her to be mute for several years after she was raped. Audrey M. Burnam, writer and editor for the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, states that her research says “Sexual assault predicted later onset of major depressive episodes, substance use disorders, and anxiety disorders. Those who were assaulted in childhood were more likely than those first assaulted in adulthood to report the subsequent development of a mental disorder.” The fact that Angelou was able to overcome this very tragic time in her life and move people with words after she was mute is a true testament to her character.

Maya Angelou’s love of poetry came at a young age. In her novel, she speaks of the time she was graduating from the eighth grade and her older brother saved up all the money he had earned working menial labor jobs to get her. Angelou states that her gift “. . . was a soft-leather copy of a collection of poems by Edgar Allen Poe. I turned to “Annabel Lee,” my favorite, and we walked up and down the garden rows reading the beautiful lines.” Edgar Allen Poe can be somewhat of a dense read, and for Angelou at such a young age to find and enjoy his poems speaks of her high intellect. During her middle school ages, Angelou attended a segregated school. In her interview with Carol E. Neubauer, Maya Angelou made remarks about her time during segregation she stated: “A black person grows up in this country knowing that racism will be as familiar as salt to the tongue and also can be as dangerous as too much salt.” Racism in America was almost unavoidable at that time, as was Segregation. Author Damien Heath who wrote The Effects of Segregation on African American High School Seniors' Academic Achievement states in his academic journal that “Court-ordered desegregation led to larger improvements in school quality resulted in more beneficial educational, economic, and health outcomes in adulthood for blacks who grew up in those court-ordered desegregation districts”. Angelou would attend a desegregated high school, where she would face difficulties, but would ultimately find her passion for words and a desire to learn.

In her high school age, she moved to San Fransisco, California she describes her time in school “In the school, I was disappointed to find out that I was not the most intelligent or even nearly the most intelligent student. The white kids had better vocabularies than I and had less fear in the classrooms”. Angelou strived to be the best in the classroom. Also in California, she gained free admittance into the California Labor School where she took dance and drama classes while attending high school during the day. Also in San Fransico Angelou became the first female African-American streetcar operator. She speaks of this struggle to become a conductor in her novel. After being turned away at the railway office she lobbied several African American support groups to help her gain access to this profession. After receiving little to no help from these groups she decided to go about this on her own. She filled out an application for the job and claims that “She made a story of near-truths and total lies. [She] kept [her] face without expression and wrote quickly the story of Marguerite Johnson … [She] was given a number of tests. Then on one happy day, [she] was hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars.” Angelou wanted to make a difference wherever she was located. In Stamps, she was set ahead in two grades, and in San Fransisco she made history.

In 1952 Angelou took a job in a nightclub and there her singing talent flourished, it was in this time where she changed her from her birth given one, Marguerite Ann Johnson, to Maya Angelou. In the years 1954 to 1958 Angelou’s broadway and singing career took off. Through 1954-55 she toured countries in Europe to perform in the opera 'Porgy and Bess.' In 1957 she recorded her first solo album, “Calypso Lady”. The year after her first album she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, and is the main character in the famous off-Broadway playwright Jen Genette’s plays such as “The Blacks” and 'Cabaret for Freedom. '

Even though Angelou was a famous actress and singer her work in civil rights not only in America but also in South Africa, and other African countries is what she is most known for. In 1959, at the request of Martin Luther King Jr. , Maya Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From the early to mid-sixties Maya Angelou moved to several countries in Africa with her romantic partner Vusumzi Make, who was also a Civil Rights activist in South Africa. In Cario, Egypt she serves as chief editor of the English language weekly The Arab Weekly. In 1961 she moved again to Ghana and there she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She also in Ghana was a publisher for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. When speaking on her time in Ghana she says “. . . helped to develop the Musical gifts of these young African men and women, but they helped to develop [her] soul…”. While living in Ghana, Angelou became a strong and active leader in the African-American community. Also there she met and became a close friend of Malcolm X. When she returned to the United States in 1965, Angelou helped Malcolm X create and develop the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm X was assassinated before he and Angelou could get the organization to grow. In 1968, while she was helping King organize a march he was also assassinated. The death of these two leaders inspired Angelou to narrate, write, and produce a documentary titled “Blacks, Blues, Black!” Also while working in civil rights Maya Angelou writes several poems about freedom and liberation. In one of her famed poems “Caged Bird,” she uses metaphors to detail what it means to be an African American and what Equality would mean to them. In her poem, she writes “But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.” When she claims that bird’s wings are clipped it is a metaphor that points to the inequality that African Americans face. Inequality is something African Americans face to this day. In the book, Black Wealth / White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality authors Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro evaluate and give statistics on the wage gap between races. Oliver and Shapiro state in their book “As with total wealth, homeownership is heavily skewed towards White families. In 1999, 72 percent of white families owned their home, compared to just 44 percent of Black families.” They go on to add “In 1998, Fortune 500 CEOs, who earned approximately $13 million on average, included just three Black people and 11 Latinos — less than 3 percent of the total.” Maya Angelou worked endlessly until the day she died to close this gap and gain equality for her people and other minorities.

Maya Angelou is considered to be one of the most moving and powerful people of the 20th century. Donna Brown Agins, who wrote and published Maya Angelou: a Biography of an Award-Winning Poet and Civil Rights Activist, details in her book the many awards and honors Angelou received. In 1972 Angelou broadened her musical and acting talents by writing a Swedish-American drama entitled Georgia, Georgia. This drama was later nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She went on to write for television and would reach her goal of directing a film, she directed Down in the Delta in 1998. During President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 Mya Angelou recited her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning.” On that day she became the first African American poet and the first female poet to recite one of their works during an inaugural ceremony. The only poet to do so before her was Jack Frost who recited his poem 'The Gift Outright' during President John F. Kennedy's ceremony in 1961. Throughout her career, she gathered several literary and humanitarian awards she also gained over 50 honorary degrees from various colleges and universities. She received several honorary degress from Wake Forest University, where she was inducted into the Wake Forest Writers Hall of Fame. She was also an associate professor at Wake Forest. In 2010 president Barack Obama bestowed her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor a citizen can be given. Her fellow award winners include Georgia O'Keeffe, Walt Disney, and Elie Wiesel.

To conclude Maya Angelou was mute as a child but grew up to have a voice that would move mountains and people alike. Her work in civil rights helped to shape the world we see, love, and live in today. She inspired not only a nation but a world. She will be remembered forever as a tender-hearted soul spoke up when she needed to and changed things when they needed to be changed. Maya Angelou changed the course of American life and is considered an American hero.

Works Cited

  • Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Bbc Pubns, 1969.
  • Neubauer, Carol E., and Maya Angelou. “An Interview with Maya Angelou.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 28, no. 2, 1987, pp. 286–292. JSTOR,
  • Agins, Donna Brown. Maya Angelou: a Biography of an Award-Winning Poet and Civil Rights Activist. Enslow Publishers., 2013.
  • Burnam, M. Audrey, et al. “Sexual Assault and Mental Disorders in a Community Population.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 56, no. 6, 1988, pp. 843–850., doi:10.1037/0022-006x.56.6.843.
  • Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin, and Damien Heath. “The Effects of Segregation on African American High School Seniors' Academic Achievement.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 68, no. 4, 1999, pp. 566–586. JSTOR,
  • Oliver, Melvin L., and Thomas M. Shapiro. Black Wealth, White Wealth: a New Perspective on Racial Inequality. Routledge, 2006.
16 December 2021
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