Maya Angelou was a world-class lady whose life might have been the inspiration for Chaka Kahn’s song I’m Every Woman. Maya was every woman – that is, every Black woman living in her era, from 1928-2014.
She lived a rich life, but a life that was not always charming. She knew the good, the bad, the ugly and the racism of her society. She saw America rise and change, as her own life did.
One word is not enough to describe Maya Angelou, because she was not any one thing. You will read for days to come about Maya the writer, the actress, the poet, the screenplay writer, the cook, the greeting card writer, the dramatist, the producer, the performer, the filmmaker, the novelist, the singer, the memoirist, the social activist.
Maya was a woman’s woman who overcame the obstacles. She was six-feet-tall, but her royal carriage and the traditional African headdresses she often wore made her seem even taller.
Maya was born in St. Louis in 1928 and experienced horrible pain when her mother’s boyfriend raped her as a seven-year-old girl. Soon after, the boyfriend was mysteriously beaten to death. Maya believed she was responsible for the death because she told of the rape. That guilt, and the rape itself, were so traumatizing that she didn’t speak for another several years except to her brother, who could occasionally coax her to talk.
Maya eventually wrote about this tragedy in her best seller I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of her seven memoirs, this one dealing with her life from childhood to the birth of her son in high school as a teenager.
She says she didn’t speak again until almost age 12, after a teacher challenged her love of poetry by telling young Maya, “You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it. Until it comes across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.”
Maya thought the teacher was trying to take away her “friend,” the poetry. During her mutism, she memorized poetry to occupy her mind, particularly the words of Edgar Allan Poe and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
She says she eventually took a book of poetry, went under her house and tried to speak it, and found that she could. This was a powerful lesson that taught her the power of the spoken word, the power of voice.
Maya was a teenage mom, having had a son at age 16, and knew what it was like to raise a child with limited resources. She knew poverty. She knew first-hand what it was to be scared in the world, determined and responsible for another life.
She had became the first African-American female cable car conductor in San Francisco at the age of 14 before finishing high school and having her son, Guy. She worked as a paint stripper, waitress and hamburger cook and was even a nightclub shake dancer and singer. She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, but took the professional name Maya Angelou when she began her nightclub career.
Young women of all races everywhere should read her books. Maya knew what it was to break the glass ceiling reserved for women and the steel ceiling reserved for Blacks. She was a double minority and knew both discriminations.
She knew the segregated south, the ugliness of Jim Crow and not being able to express yourself fully as a human being because of your dark skin color. She lived it. She was a member of “the greatest generation,” where hard work, factory workers, gold retirement watches and bungalows were the order of the day. In her time, a Black woman trying to make a go of it by writing was a joke.
Maya knew what it was to love a man. She left her country to be the wife of a Greek sailor. The marriage was short-lived, but she knew what it was to be married to someone quite different than you, but to one who appreciated and respected your talent and would encourage it and who loved your skin color.
Maya knew the Civil Rights Movement. She saw the sign of the times and signed up with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Nelson Mandela. She never quite got over King being assassinated on her birthday, April 4. For the rest of their lives, she and King’s widow, Coretta, shared a poetic gesture. They sent each other flowers to remember April 4 – Maya’s birth, King’s death.
She went against the grain of African Americans when she steadfastly supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama for president in 2008. Part of the reason for it might have been personal.
One of her highest honors was the request of President Bill Clinton to write and recite a poem for his Inauguration in 1993. Her reading of On The Pulse of the Morning at the inaugural was broadcast around the world and the poem eventually won a Grammy Award and became part of her best-selling book of poetry. Maya rose to greatness on that day, becoming America’s poetess. She was only the second poet ever to read at a presidential inaugural, behind Robert Frost’s turn at President John Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1961.
While her political support was with Hillary in 2008, Maya knew the historical significance of the Obama presidency and celebrated it and he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – in 2010.
But Maya’s political mind was independent – she even spoke up for beleaguered Black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. And she demonstrated her academics and artistry dealing with the quote on the Dr. King Monument when it was recently unveiled in Washington, D.C. Maya was outraged that Dr. King was quoted out of context, so she addressed the issue and caused it to be changed.
She Taught Life Lessons
Maya mentored. She saw a rising star in Oprah Winfrey and became her adopted mother as Oprah rose in her popularity as a voice. Oprah became her student, true, but Maya was a mentor to many others also.
She was constantly sought after to discuss the issues of the day, from politics to career choices to life decisions, and she shared her wisdom. The wisdom in her voice was not only from age, but at its root were the tough living and trials and tribulations that one only gets from living a full life.
I experienced Ms. Angelou twice, with Rev. Jesse Jackson as he presented her to Rainbow/Push Annual Conventions. She was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Luncheon a couple of times. She was in awe of Rev. Jackson and her voice was eloquent.
She overheard a conversation between Rev. Willie Barrow and I onstage once as we referred to Jackson by his first name Jesse. She scolded us both, saying that we should only refer to him as Dr. Jackson. I never forgot that lesson. She was saying we should show the ultimate respect to him at all times.
I wanted so much to talk to her as a writer. I wanted to know how do you move from poetry to the screenplay to the greeting card. I wanted to know her methodology.
My favorite Angelou poem is Phenomenal Woman; it is a woman’s anthem. And her Still I Rise should be Black America’s anthem.
Maya Angelou lived a full life, a real life, and a rich life in her 86 years. She loved in many aspects. She died as a teacher. She died writing. She was gracious and grateful. She was the consummate writer who knew when to start and when to stop tweaking it. She knew when she was done.
Angelou wrote this about her craft as a writer and it can also be applied to everyday living:
“I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it’s the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, ‘No. No, I’m finished. Bye.’ And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that."
Dr. Maya Angelou
April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014