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Maya Angelou: Poetry is Music Written for the Human Voice


Maya Angelou before a Calypso performance at he Village Vanguard in New York City

Considered one of the greatest writers in the United States, Maya Angelou was the first African-American to work on the streetcars in San Francisco (working for the Market Street Railway Company). She was the first African-American woman to recite her poetry at a US presidential inauguration, the first African-American woman to make the non-fiction bestseller’s list, the first African-American woman to have an original screenplay produced for the movie Georgia, Georgia in 1972.

She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri to Viviane Baxter Johnson, a card dealer, and Bailey Johnson, a hotel doorman. She and her older brother, Bailey Jr.—the first person to call her Maya—were raised by their grandmother Momma Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas, following their parents' divorce when she was three years old. Momma Annie, as she was called, worked until early morning frying ham and boiling chickens. She made meat pies, offered cold lemonade and selling homemade meals to workers at the local lumber mill. For breakfast on Sundays, Momma Annie would make eggs, fried potatoes and onions, yellow corn, fried fish, and biscuits covered with butter. Dinner might include buttered biscuits, fried corn cakes, pork sausage, green beans and homegrown fruit.

Stamps was a segregated town with the black residents living in an area called the "Quarters," and whites in a separate section divided by a set of railroad tracks and Red River. A town where black patients had to find black doctors and black dentists but none were to be found.

At eight years old, after moving back to St. Louis, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, eventually testifying in his trial where he was sentenced to one year and one day in jail. His attorney was able was able to have him released that same day, hours later he was murdered. Fearing that her voice led to outcome, she'd stopped speaking to anyone except Bailey.

In 1945, Maya Angelou graduated from Mission High School in and gave birth to her son, Clyde Bailey (Guy) Johnson, at 17. She became a madam at 18, renting a house to two prostitutes and even later worked as a prostitute herself.

In the 1950s, at the age of 26, following her marriage to Tosh Angelos, a music lover and sailor of Greek origin whom she’d met at the Melrose Record Shop, she changed her last name to  the variation Angelou, while working as a singer and dancer of calypso music at the Purple Onion.

She helped Malcolm X with the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), participated in the Harlem Writers' Guild and helped organize the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage, was appointed National Ambassador for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

A gourmet cook, Maya Angelou collected more than 100 cookbooks, loved foods such as "lamb curry with side dishes of fresh pineapple, tomatoes, papaya, and mangos." Her favorite authors included James Weldon Johnson, who wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing," Paul Lauren Dunbar, Langston Hughes, William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois, and Shakespeare. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was one of her favorite books.

In 1962, after leaving her husband Vusumzi Make, a freedom fighter from South Africa, Maya and her son moved to West Africa (Accra), where she worked as an administrative assistant at the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana's Institute of African Studies. Returning to California at 38, she wrote and narrated a 10-part KQED educational television series called "Blacks, Blues, Black" which highlighted African traditions still current in American life at the age of 40. Her first autobiography, “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was published in 1970 at 42. "The theme shows that people can survive with courage and dignity—even in hostile environments."

Life will give you experiences, and these experiences may not always be pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden. But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are marvelous return.

Like this post? Stop by and read "On Being Authentic: A Tale of Two Women" and speaking of rose gardens, you may also like the Cream, Confetti & Gold Geometric Beaded Earrings in "Rose Garden."

Works cited:

  • Kite, L. Patricia. Maya Angelou. Lerner Publications, 1999
  • Harper, Judith E. Journey to Freedom: Maya Angelou. The Child's World, 1999.

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