Maya Angelou - One Of The Most Inspiring American Poets

Maya Angelou once said “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.” Ever since her younger years, Angelou has influenced the lives of others just by doing what she loves most; writing. “I’m happy to be a writer, of prose, poetry, every kind of writing. Every person in the world who isn’t a recluse, hermit or mute uses words. I know of no other art form that we always use. So the writer has to take the most used, most familiar objects — nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs — ball them together and make them bounce, turn them a certain way and make people get into a romantic mood; and another way, into a bellicose mood. I’m most happy to be a writer”. Angelou was one of the most inspiring American poets and civil rights activists of the 20th century which was shown by her heart filled poetry, seven autobiographical books, and written and produced prize-winning documentaries.

At a young age Angelou started writing poetry “There’s a journal which I kept from about 9 years old. The man who gave it to me lived across the street from the store and kept it when my grandmother’s papers were destroyed. I’d written some essays. I loved poetry, still do. But I really, really loved it then. I would write some — of course it was terrible — but I’d always written something down”. “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die,” published in 1971 was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, and is one of her most famous and recognized pieces of poetry to this day. According to Carol Neubauer in Southern Women Writers, “the first twenty poems describe the whole gamut of love, from the first moment of passionate discovery to the first suspicion of painful loss.” In other poems, “Angelou turns her attention to the lives of black people in America from the time of slavery to the rebellious 1960s. Her themes deal broadly with the painful anguish suffered by blacks forced into submission, with guilt over accepting too much, and with protest and basic survival”.

Angelou’s poetry has been praised for its portrayal of black beauty, strength of women, and human spirit. Her poems would respond to matters of race and sex on larger social and psychological scales. It can be traced to African American oral traditions, and slave and work songs. In 2013 Angelou was nominated for and received the Literarian Award for her inspiring poetry work. Describing her work to George Plimpton, Angelou said, “Once I got into it I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass — the slave narrative — speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning ‘we.’ And what a responsibility. Trying to work with that form, the autobiographical mode, to change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century has been a great challenge for me”.

Angelou was encouraged by author James Baldwin and editor from Random House, Robert Loomis to write an autobiography. Originally she declined the offer, but later changed her mind and wrote her autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, that made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. The book documents her childhood and ends in the birth of her son. It was the first of six autobiographies, and was nominated for the National Book Award. The use of fiction-writing techniques in her autobiographies was innovative for its time and helped to complicate the connection between the genre, truth, and memory. While her books are episodic and intricately constructed, the events rarely follow a strict chronology and are structured to illustrate themes. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is widely taught in schools though its depiction of race, sexual abuse, and violence has faced criticism.

Angelou attended George Washington High School in San Francisco and took dance and acting lessons at the California Labor College on a scholarship as she explains in her third award winning autobiography, Swingin’ and Singin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, published in 1976, states that when she was just seventeen she began working in San Francisco as the first African American and first female streetcar driver she also “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 1995, Angelou was lauded for remaining on The New York Times’ paperback nonfiction bestseller list for two years — the longest-running record in the charts history.

It took Angelou 15 years to write her final autobiographical volume, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, published in 2002. The book covers four years from the time Angelou came back from Ghana in 1964 through the time she sat down at the table of her mother and started writing I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in 1968. “I didn’t know how to write it,” she said. “I didn’t see how the assassination of Malcolm X, the Watts riot, the breakup of a love affair, then the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., how I could get all that loose with something uplifting in it”. A Song Flung up to Heaven addresses these incidents “the poignant beauty of Angelou’s writing enhances rather than masks the candor with which she addresses the racial crisis through which America was passing,” Wayne A. Holst wrote in Christian Century.

Angelou produced prize-winning documentaries, she was the first black woman director in Hollywood. Her “Afro-Americans in the Arts,” PBS special received a Golden Eagle Award. She was the first black woman to have a screenplay produced in 1972, “Georgia Georgia.” In 1977 Angelou won an Emmy Award for her work on television ministries “Roots”. She helped adapt her novel, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, for a TV movie of the same name in 1979. She also wrote the poetry for the 1993 movie Poetic Justice, and played Aunt June's role. As stated by Angelou herself “I have a theory that nobody understands talent any more than we understand electricity. So I think we’ve done a real disservice to young people by telling them, “Oh, you be careful. You’ll be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.” It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I think you can be a jack-of-all-trades and a mistress-of-all-trades”.

Maya Angelou was one of the most inspiring American poets and civil rights activists of the 20th century. During the civil rights movement she was offered a position as the northern coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Her heart filled poetry including “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, several of her autobiographical books were nominated for the National Book Award, and many of her written and produced documentaries won Golden Eagle and Emmy Awards. Barack Obama issued a statement about Angelou after her death in 2014, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” She received the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.

16 December 2021
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