By Yoon Joung Lee
Writer and African American activist, Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri and raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. She spent her difficult formative years moving back and forth between her mother’s and grandmother’s.
During her early years in Stamps, she experienced brutality from racial discrimination. But, she also learned the unshakable faith of African-American society and their values.When she was 8, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. The mother’s boyfriend got killed by her uncles later, but the event caused her to go mute for almost 6 years.
During her teens and early twenties, her love for the arts made it possible to win a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. The arts for this little girl filled with her with isolation and experimentation. At 14, she dropped out of school and became San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor.
She later finished high school and gave birth to a son, Guy, at age 16, a few weeks after graduation. To support her son, as a young single mother, she worked as a waitress and cook. But nothing could stop her passion for music, dance, performance and poetry; which would soon take her center stage.
From 1954 to 1955, she toured Europe and Africa as part of the musical, Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham who was a prominent American modern dancer, often compared with the influence Picasso had on modern visual arts. She was also on a variety of TV shows with Alvin Ailey, who is a founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in NY and is credited with popularizing modern dance.
In 1957, she recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1960s, she returned to New York City to join the Harlem Writers Guild. There, she began her life as an actress in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom. She became involved in black activism. In 1957, she recorded her first album, Calypso Lady.
In 1960s, she returned to New York City to join the Harlem Writers Guild. There, she began her life as an actress in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom. She became involved in black activism. In 1960, she went to Egypt to serve as editor of the English language weekly, The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana to teach at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She also worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. During her time abroad, she mastered various languages; French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti, and she began to take her life, her activism and her writing more seriously. In 1964, she came back to America with Malcolm X, who she met in Ghana, to help him establish his new Organization of African American Unity.
However, not too long after their arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated. The organization dissolved and Dr. Angelou was asked to serve as Northern Coordinator for Southern Christian Leadership Conference by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1968, around her birthday, King was assassinated.
With the help of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she published her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1970. The novel tells of her first seventeen years. It earned enormous popular success internationally and was nominated for a National Book Award.
Without her intention of writing a series, she wrote five additional volumes.
Drawing from her own life experience in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she became the first African American woman who publicly shared her personal life and she is highly respected as a voice for African Americans.
She has served on two presidential committees, received the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. She also has received 2 Grammy Awards. In 1993, President Clinton requested her to compose a poem and read at his inauguration. Her poem, On the Pulse of the Morning, was broadcast live all over the world. Dr. Angelou will not stop energizing our spirits and bodies as well as healing our hearts by her words and actions.