Maya Angelou (Born Marguerite Johnson), the “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South” passed away today, on May 28, 2014. The author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings overcame many obstacles and boundaries during her lifetime. She became a renown poet, novelist, actress, director, professor, and even a singer and dancer of calypso music whose work simply defied a description under a simple label. In her early years, she studied dance and drama in San Francisco, but dropped out at the age of 14. Shortly thereafter, she became the city’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later returned to high school to finish her diploma and gave birth to her son Clyde a few weeks after graduation. As a 17-year-old single mother waiting tables, Angelou wrestled with challenges related to poverty and crime and even worked in prostitution at one time. She moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education. Later in life, these life experiences would be vital influences for her wisdom and education of others.
During the 1950’s, Maya acquired a passion for music and dance while performing professionally throughout San Francisco in The Purple Onion nightclub. At the request of her managers and supporters, she changed her stage name from “Marguerite Johnson” to “Maya Angelou” to set herself apart with more distinction. In 1954-55, she took advantage of an opportunity to tour Europe to perform in the opera production “Porgy and Bess.” She began a practice of learning the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages. In 1957, she recorded her first album “Miss Calypso” which was reissued as a CD in 1996. She also appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film “Calypso Heat Wave,” in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions. By 1958, she became a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and played a queen in “The Blacks,” an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet.
Although she never went to college, she was affectionately referred to as Dr. Angelou and received more than 30 honorary degrees during her lifetime. Beginning in 1982, she taught American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salm, NC. At Wake Forest, she has the distinction of holding the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She is credited with stating: “I created myself. I have taught myself so much.” Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up between St. Louis and the then racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy stunned her into silence for many years. When she was 7-years-old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He was later beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him. Angelou once stated that: “My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years.” It was during this period of silence that Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of the family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again.
Angelou is credited with stating that: “I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine … before she realizes she’s reading.” Among her many accomplishments, she also became one of the first black female film directors. Her work on Broadway has been nominated for Tony Awards. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Maya Angelou was a 6-foot-tall wordsmith whose larger than life legacy will continue to shine.
Below is an image of Maya Angelou’s Official Twitter Account, where her very last tweet (statement) is shown. How fitting and timely.
ASE! (Pronounced Ah-SHAY, sometimes written as ASHE)