Known as one of the most prolific female poets of all time, Maya Angelou was more than just a great wordsmith. She was a talented artist, a determined activist, and a hero to women across the globe.
Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, Maya got her name from her elder brother Bailer Jr., who derived it from “Mya Sister.” At three, she and her then-four-year-old brother were sent on a train to Arkansas to live with their grandmother after their parents separated. Four years later, her father turned up unexpectedly and returned them to their mother in St. Louis. At eight, she was raped by her mother’s then-boyfriend, Freeman. Four days after he was released from a one-day jail sentence, he was murdered. The trauma caused Maya to become mute for five years, and she and her brother were returned to their grandmother in Arkansas.
In her period of silence, Maya came to know a teacher who became a family friend, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, whom she would credit with helping her regain speech. Sometime during those five years, Maya’s interest in literature grew immensely after Flowers introduced her to Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and other authors.
She took on various jobs, including some in the sex trade, which raised some issues later on in her life. However, Maya openly talked about her experiences, saying that young people should be allowed to think that adults make mistakes too. She wrote about her experiences as a sex worker in Gather Together in my Name.
In 1951, Maya married an aspiring Greek musician named Tosh Angelos, to whom she was married for three years despite societal discrimination on interracial marriages. Around this time, she also took classes in modern dance. She and Alvin Ailey formed a dance team, Al and Rita, and performed throughout San Francisco. Maya moved to New York with her husband and son Clyde to study African dance with Pearl Primus, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
After her divorce, Maya continued her professional dancing career in San Francisco, where she took the stage name Maya Angelou. Other than dancing professionally, she also toured in Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess and recorded an album titled Miss Calypso.
In 1959, Maya moved to New York to focus on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and met several African American authors such as Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, John Henrik Clarke, and Julian Mayfield.
She and her son moved to Cairo in 1961, where Maya worked for The Arab Observer, a weekly English-language newspaper. A year later, they moved to Ghana so Clyde, who had changed his name to Guy, could attend college. They stayed longer than expected after Guy was injured in a car accident. While in Ghana, Maya was a feature editor for the African Review, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, and a writer-broadcaster for Radio Ghana.
She returned to the United States with her son in 1965 and became more involved with advocating for civil rights after meeting and befriending Malcolm X before he was assassinated. She wrote briefly in Los Angeles and moved to New York in 1967, where she wrote plays. In 1969, Maya wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which brought her international recognition. Caged Bird eventually became Maya’s most prolific work, a piece that allowed women and people of color to step forth and place themselves as the protagonists of stories.
Other than her autobiographies, Maya wrote countless essays and poetry. Some of her poetry collections include A Brave and Startling Truth (1995), Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993), and I Shall Not be Moved (1990). One of her poetry collections, 1971’s Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1993, she was invited to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of Pres. Bill Clinton. She even wrote songs for Roberta Flack, as well as several movie and television scores. Her final autobiography, Mom & Me & Mom, was published in 2013.
Over the course of her career, she received dozens of awards and over fifty honorary degrees. In 2010, Maya Angelou was presented the Presidential Award of Freedom by Pres. Barack Obama. She died in 2014, leaving behind a legacy of relevant and inspiring works sure to influence generations to come.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
This March, 1-Hour Proofreading celebrates Women’s Month. We salute writers like Maya Angelou, who have become inspirations to women and girls across the world.
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