As a teenager, Maya Angelou was driven to succeed in all aspects of her life which began with her move to San Francisco after winning a scholarship at San Francisco’s Labor School in 1942 (Wagner-Martin, 12). Later in her life at the age of 16, Angelou decided that she wanted to become a streetcar conductor. Determined to get the job Angelou visited Muni’s personnel department with the intention of placing an application–but was denied even receiving one. When asked by her mother why she did not get the job Angelou stated that it was because she was black, but she did not let this stop her.
With persistence, every day Angelou went to the department before the secretaries arrived and would sit in the office reading books. Angelou would only leave when everyone else was gone and after two weeks a man came out of his office and finally offered Angelou the job (“Dr. Maya”). While working as San Francisco’s first female black street car conductor, Angelou demonstrated that with persistence and determination anything–including breaking the color barrier–is possible.
Angelou later returned to high school to continue her studies and became pregnant senior year but graduated just a few weeks before giving birth to her son, Guy (“Academy of Achievement”). She left home shortly thereafter and took on the role of a single mother on her own. To support herself and her son she auditioned for a dance job at the Garden of Allah in San Francisco’s International settlement area and was immediately hired, given $75 a week, and became the first African American to ever dance in the club (Wagner-Martin, 69).
With yet another achievement, these were just the beginnings of Angelou proving herself to be a significant figure and role model within America. Through her hard work in supporting herself and her son, Angelou destroyed the color barrier and thus challenged people to put their ideas of segregation and discrimination into the past while inspiring others to reach after their dreams no matter what obstacles there may be.
Angelou’s career continued to flourish as down the road she landed a role in the stage production of Porgy and Bess, and from 1954 to 1955 toured over 6 different countries that showed her a world outside the limits of the segregated United States in the 1950s (WQXR). This experience would prove to be something Angelou would always remember as when she returned back home she intended to join a movement based on destroying segregation and discrimination entirely.
By the end of the 1950s, Angelou strived to further develop her skills as a writer and moved to New York joining the Harlem Writers Guild and establishing herself as a writer within the Civil Rights Movement (“Maya Angelou Biography”). In 1960 Angelou moved to Cairo Egypt and while there she was the editor of the English language weekly, The Arab Observer, for over a year (Prince). Later, Angelou took her talents to Ghana where she met the American civil rights activist Malcolm X.
In his visits to Ghana, Angelou became close friends with Malcolm and worked with him on ideas for change in the United States. Returning to America in 1964, Angelou was fully focused on helping Malcolm X build his new Organization of African Unity, but shortly after her arrival Malcolm X was assassinated and thus his plans for the new organization passed with him (“Maya Angelou Biography”). Angelou continued fighting for civil rights along with a better quality of life for all and later in 1960 she began to work with civil rights activist Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968 King would go on to request that Angelou serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and be a part of his campaign for helping the poor after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts (Sewer). Angelou accounts in her biography A Song Flung Up to Heaven that King’s words upon picking her for this role were, “I need someone to travel this country and talk to black preachers… I need you, Maya. Not too many black preachers can resist a [woman] with a good idea. (Angelou, 177)
Yet sadly on Angelou’s birthday, April 4th 1968, King was assassinated before she and him were ever to proceed further with the movement. With Angelou’s willingness and eagerness regarding her involvement in the plans of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. , she demonstrated her role as a leader, and activist. Angelou further proved herself to be a significant figure as she was recognized by these men and many people in the world to be a strong source of power, intelligence, and inspiration to those around her.
After King’s assassination Angelou was left heartbroken as King was not only her partner in a movement, but a close friend. However, in Angelou’s life there was a time where the arts of poetry and writing had healed her from the pains of sadness once before. With remembrance of that point in her life, Angelou decided it was time to tell her own story to the world. Having guidance from James Baldwin, a novelist and a good friend of hers, Angelou soon found peace in writing (“Academy of Achievement”). Baldwin along with Robert
Loomis, who was a book editor for Random House, proposed that Angelou write an autobiography that could also be a piece of literature–and with that Angelou began to work on what would later be titled I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (“Continuing”). Angelou accounts in the book that “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” hence this book tells the story of Angelou’s life in the early 1930s to the 1970s and gives a historical account on what life was like for blacks during the time frame it spans over.
The book made history in its release as in 1970 when Random House had it published, there had been almost no autobiography published that was written by an African-American since the days of slave narratives and there was not yet a category that existed for domestic abuse non-fiction (Wagner-Martin, 3). I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings epitomizes how strength, determination, and a love for the arts can reach across division to conquer racism and the struggles of one’s past.
Remaining on The New York Times paperback bestseller for two years and inspiring many to this day, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a book that holds great significance to not only Maya Angelou herself but the rest of the world as well. In the years that followed, Angelou continued writing autobiographical narratives and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings became the first of a seven volume series.
With the publishings of her critically acclaimed autobiographical narratives and her continued successes in the field of the arts, Angelou continued to awe and influence Americans all over the world. Her works and her life story reached out to many and were soon to be recognized by two of America’s leaders, and in these recognitions Angelou would get the opportunity of a lifetime to not only share her talents but receive recognition for the inspiring life she lived.
In 1993 the incoming President Bill Clinton asked if Angelou would compose a poem to recite at his inauguration and Angelou happily obliged writing a poem entitled “On the Pulse of the Morning. ” Publicly reciting the poem on January 20, 1993, Angelou became the second poet in history to read a poem at a presidential inauguration but the first African American and women to make this accomplishment overall (Dwayne). The themes of the poem are centered around the harmony of all people regardless of different races, income, religions, genders, and sexual orientations.
Angelou would go on to win a Grammy Award in 1994 for the audio recording of the poem in the “Best Spoken Word” category (“Maya Angelou Wins”). “On the Pulse of the Morning” still proves to be a significant moment in Angelou’s life as well as the lives of other Americans who listen to its message because the poem makes a call to the civil rights movement in saying, “History… Cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you.
Give birth again to the dream” (“Maya Angelou’s”) Through this poem, Angelou calls for all Americans to look towards the future and the dream of equality within the United States–a truly positive and uplifting message for all across America. Eighteen years after Angelou recited her poem at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, she would find herself in the East Room of the White House receiving a great honor: The Presidential Medal of Freedom. On February 11, 2011 President Barack Obama presented Angelou with the medal as he relayed to her and everyone else in America how much of an impact she made in America.
In giving her the medal, President Obama spoke of how Angelou’s voice was heard by millions across the world who have known injustice and misfortune including his mother, Ann Dunham, which is why his own sister was given the name Maya (“Maya Angelou Receives”). The Presidential Medal of freedom is an award given to those who, according to Executive Order 9586, have “made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” (United).
This description clearly fits the life of Maya Angelou as she taught Americans to move past the struggles encountered in life and inspired all to come together as one nation–putting all differences aside–for the greater good of America. In receiving this award Angelou’s great significance to America was celebrated as the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor.