Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist who published many works throughout her lifetime. She is most famously known for her memoirs and poems documenting her early life, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, and Phenomenal Women, about her journey as a woman, both of which brought her international acclaim. Through her political activism and her descriptive writings, she became well known as a civil rights activist and worked alongside two of the most well known Civil Rights activists, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
Maya Angelou was a well rounded woman who heavily influenced the literary world through her descriptive writings and documentary stories about her journey throughout her life and her struggles as a woman, and her life as a civil rights activist. Born in 1928 in Mississippi as Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou faced many struggles growing up as a young black women in The South. Her parents divorced at a very young age, and in 1931, her and her brother moved in with her grandmother in a small town in Alabama.
Within a short time, she moved to San Francisco where she attended Mission High School (Maya Angelou Biography). When visiting her mom in Chicago, she was molested, causing her to not speak for five years. She wrote in one her memoirs “At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice. ” (Maya Angelou Caged Bird). She birthed her son Guy soon after graduating highschool and went on to break social norms by raising him as a single mom, working multiple jobs.
After her acting and singing career escalated, she took time to travel the world, studying Italian, Arabic, Latin, and French. While working in Ghana, she met Malcolm X, inspiring her to join the civil rights movement when she came back to the United States. Shortly after returning home around 1960, her writing, performing, and activism would take center stage as she rose to fame. Maya Angelou was a pivotal writer in the literary world, often writing about the struggles she faced as a young black woman.
She wrote about her feelings, thoughts, and emotions, moving many people with the experiences she faced as a young adult. In her most famous memoir published in 1971, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she discussed her struggles living as a black female in the South, leading to her to Stamps, St. Louis, and California (Overview: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Her memoirs covered many topics, including her rape by her father, her careers as an actress, singer, dancer and playwright, and her love life; all of which many women in the civil rights era were not willing to discuss.
Angelou writes “don’t worry ’cause you ain’t pretty. Plenty pretty women I seen digging ditches or worse. You smart. I swear to God, I rather you have a good mind than a cute behind. ” This quote represents the underlying theme of female empowerment, which is evident through the entire memoir. In a criticism written by Myra K. McMurry, she notes that Caged Bird was “an affirmation, … Maya Angelou’s answer to the question of how a Black girl can grow up in a repressive system without being maimed by it. (Maya Angelou Biography). Throughout the memoir, one can see her change from a young girl, oppressed, nervous and scared, to progressing into a strong, confident woman. Angelou was also acclaimed for her poems, inspiring confidence in women all around the world. In her poem Phenomenal Women published in 1995, she writes about how she overcame the pressure of being a woman and talks about her confidence in her body. Angelou repeats the phrase below at the end every stanza: I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me
This set of lines resonated with women globally when the poem was published and continues to inspire many women. Many of her poems are very personal, but all were addressed to a certain person or group to make a statement. In Still i Rise, Angelou writes about the years of segregation mistreatment from white oppressors in roles of power. She opens the poem with this sentence, arguing how oppression is rooted in writing, and perpetrated by white historians and journalists who can twist the truth.
You may write me down in history With your bitter twister lies… 1-2) Similar to her memoirs, Angelou’s poetry received national acclaim as well as causing an emotional and intriguing reaction from each of its readers. Angelou was highly influential in the Civil Rights Movement, working closely with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. She first met Malcolm X while in Ghana studying the West African language Fanti (Taylor, Helen). She worked closely with him, fighting for the rights of blacks, but that work came to an end when Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.
Shortly after this, she heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at a Church in Harlem (Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle) and was moved by his words. In her autobiography The Heart of a Woman, she writes that when she first met Martin Luther King, Jr. , “He was shorter than I expected and so young. He had an easy friendliness, which was unsettling” (Heart, 107). At the time, she was performing with a group and was nominated Northern Coordinator of the SCLC to continue working with King on raising funds by doing outreach performances.
Her inspiration from King and Malcolm X resonates in her later memoirs, where she often references her fight for civil rights and the struggles that many blacks in the South faced. Angelou received many awards and global recognition for her acting, writing, and civil rights activism. Before becoming a published writer, she was an accomplished performer, studying modern dance with Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham, and performing in many award winning off Broadway shows including Porgy and Bess and Cabaret of Freedom, which she wrote herself (Showalter, Elaine).
She first received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die and then was nominated for her score and screenplay of Georgia, Georgia (Maya Angelou Biography). Angelou’s writings broke many boundaries and influenced her readers through her themes about overcoming racism, oppression from whites, and unfair treatment of women. In 1993, she recited her poem On The Pulse of Morning about human solidarity and the similarities through human kindness at Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
She added, “In all my work, what | try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike. ” in an interview about her performance (On the Pulse of Morning). In 2000, she received the National Medal of the Arts from Bill Clinton. Then, in 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. At the ceremony, Obama noted that “She touched me, she touched all of you, she touched people all across the globe, including a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States. (Gambino, Lauren).
Maya Angelou lived an exceeding prodigious life during the times when the struggles of women and civil rights came to the forefront of society. She was a woman of her time, personally experiencing sexism and racism, which she fought with her writing and activism, and alongside many great individuals. She was able to transform personal hardship into poetics, interpreted commentary, and documentary work that not only called attention to the situation, but inspired many individuals, communities, and nations to take action in the world.