Lauded as a multifaceted superstar, Maya Angelou — a tall, gap-toothed, spirited individualist who is often labeled feminist writer, African-American autobiographer, historian, lecturer, journalist, activist, filmmaker, poet, singer, actor, and storyteller — fits no single designation. She set out to whip a variety of challenges, including the language barrier, and learned French, Italian, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Arabic, and Fanti, a Ghanaian dialect. Her dazzling blend of talents and energies renders her uniquely suited to a variety of self-directed projects, all of which broaden and ennoble her. Her works, translated into ten languages and hitting bestseller lists on two continents, attest to an indomitable spirit. In her words, "I will not allow anybody to minimize my life, not anybody, not a living soul — nobody, no lover, no mother, no son, no boss, no President, nobody."
Childhood and Adolescence
As she reveals in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou [mah' yuh an' jeh loh] was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. The second child and first daughter of Bailey Johnson, a brash, insouciant Navy dietician, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, a nurse by profession and gambler by trade, Angelou acquired the first half of her pen name from her brother, Bailey Junior, whose babyish babbling transformed "my sister" into "Maya." Following her parents' divorce in 1931, Maya and Bailey, labeled on their wrists with "To Whom It May Concern," were dispatched by train from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, a rural Southern backwash that contrasted deeply with the citified gaiety of Maya's birthplace.
Stamps' nurturing community spirit became Maya's surrogate family. Under the care of Momma, the children's Old South paternal grandmother, and their semi-paralyzed Uncle Willie, the children lived in the town's black quarter in the rear of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, the family-owned grocery and feed store. There they absorbed iron-clad, no-nonsense religious and moral training, punctuated by lashes with a switch from a peach tree, and reminders that the Almighty brooked no laxness and that Momma Henderson tolerated neither dirt nor backtalk. Maya's escapism from her grim, dutiful everyday life led her to classic literature, particularly white writers — Shakespeare, Kipling, Poe, Thackeray, and James Weldon Butler — and notable black authors — Paul Dunbar, Langston Hughes, W E. B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson.
Returned by her father to the Baxters' extended family in St. Louis in 1936, Maya, thoroughly indoctrinated with Momma's strictures, was reintroduced to the easy ways of the big city, where her self-absorbed mother drank and danced in gambling halls, kept company with a new man, and encouraged her babies to enjoy food, music, and other indulgences which had been in short supply in Stamps. This idyllic season in Maya's life ended abruptly after Vivian's lover, Mr. Freeman, raped Maya. To add to the emotional torture, she was forced to testify against her attacker. After her uncles murdered the rapist, the tenderhearted eight year old, refusing to speak, crept into a wounded, private world of fear and guilt.
Unsuited to the demands of an emotionally damaged child, Vivian returned Maya to Stamps, where, with Momma's guidance, she rebuilt self-esteem by cocooning herself from the outside world, reading classic literature, excelling at school, and imitating the genteel, bookish tastes of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, an old-school black Southern aristocrat who ministered to her need for pampering. Following Maya's graduation with honors from the eighth grade at Lafayette County Training School in 1940, Momma escorted her to Los Angeles, where Vivian met them and helped them move into an apartment. After Bailey joined them a month later, Momma returned to Stamps, and Maya and Bailey joined Vivian in Oakland. Later, after Vivian married Daddy Clidell Jackson, the family eventually settled in a fourteen-room house on Post Street in San Francisco's Fillmore district.
Matriculating by day at George Washington High School and in the evening at the California Labor School from 1941 to 1945, Maya, who dreamed of becoming a real estate agent, complete with briefcase (in spite of her grandmother's hopes that she would become a preacher) developed the blend of scholarship and creativity that undergirds her current success. Following a short vacation at her father's trailer in southern California and a thirty-day disappearance, she returned to her mother's care and besieged city bureaucracy for a job as San Francisco's first black streetcar conductor. Shortly after summer school graduation from Mission High, she bore a son, Clyde Bailey "Guy" Johnson, who was fathered by a neighborhood boy.
For the remainder of the 1940s, to support her child, Angelou moved about California and took a variety of jobs — dancing in night clubs, cooking at a Creole cafe, removing paint at a dent and body shop, and serving as madam and sometime prostitute at a San Diego brothel. Terrified of arrest for her illegal activities, she hastily returned to Stamps, then Louisville, where the army accepted, then ousted her because of her connection with the California Labor School, which was sponsored by the Communist Party. In the interim, she eased the pain of rejection with marijuana and a new career hoofing to "Blue Flame" and "Caravan" as one half of the exotic dance duo of "Poole and Rita."
More short-term jobs followed, including fry cook in Stockton and a second short stint in prostitution. However, when Angelou became aware of Bailey's deep despair over the death of his young wife, Eunice, she returned her attention to family matters, and, in spite of his great sorrow, Bailey, concerned for the company his sister was immersed in, forced her to give up her dissolute life. A yearning to support herself drove Angelou to sell stolen clothes for a junkie, but on his advice, she stayed free of drugs, escaped the seamy life, and again sought a legitimate job.
While clerking in a record shop at the age of twenty-two, Maya met and married Tosh Angelos, a Greek-American sailor, and settled into domesticity in Los Angeles. However, beset by family and neighborhood disapproval of their mixed-race marriage, the relationship lasted only a few years, crumbling about the time of Momma's death. From 1954 to 1955, after a stint as exotic dancer at the Garden of Allah, Angelou left Guy in Vivian's care and toured Europe and Africa with a U.S. Department of State production of Porgy and Bess. Compelled by maternal unrest, she returned to California and settled in a houseboat commune in Sausalito to mother her son.
Because petty instances of neighborhood racism continued to plague her, the respite was shortlived. Within the year, with impetus from black poet John Oliver Killens, Angelou, eager to polish her writing skills, pushed on to New York and allied herself with the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 50s. Years of private music and drama training and dance classes with Martha Graham, Pearl Primus, and Ann Halprin prepared her well for a career. Searching for outlets for her talents in the 1950s, she danced and sang calypso and blues at San Francisco's Purple Onion, New York's Village Vanguard, and Chicago's Mr. Kelly's. In the 1960s, she sang at Harlem's Apollo Theatre and appeared in off-Broadway New York theatrical productions, including Heatwave and Jean Genet's The Blacks. Spurred by civil rights gains, she joined talents with comedian Godfrey Cambridge and wrote and produced Cabaret for Freedom, which epitomized a time of change when black performers and writers were receiving salaries and notoriety equivalent to their talents.
Sharing a common-law marriage with Vusumzi Make [mah' kay], a suave South African anti-apartheid leader from Johannesburg, in 1961, Angelou transported her interest and enthusiasm to a colony of black American expatriates in Egypt. As Madame Make, she lived in a milieu where her chocolate brown skin and nappy hair were accepted as "correct and normal." Although the relationship dissolved after she grew tired of her mate's patriarchal attitudes, mismanagement of money, and infidelities, she remained in Africa and for two years served as the first female editor of the Arab Observer, a Cairo news weekly. Moving on to Accra, she settled Guy into college, then remained to nurse him after an automobile accident broke his neck, an arm, and a leg. While administering the School of Music and Drama, she starred in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage at the University of Ghana. To supplement her meager salary, she also wrote for the Ghanaian Times and the African Review, a political journal.
The African phase of Angelou's life ended with a growing sense of her American-ness. About the time of her father's death, she returned to Los Angeles, where in 1970 black spokesman Bayard Rustin sought leadership initiatives from her, including a post as Northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Two presidents — Ford and Carter — appointed her to honorary positions: the Bicentennial Commission and the National Commission on the Observance of the International Women's Year. Subsequently, groups such as the Family Service Convention, Michigan State Celebrity Lecture series, Tennessee Humanities Council, Coalition of 100 Black Women, and Johns Hopkins University's Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium clamored for her rollicking, emotional speeches. Her humanistic topics, spiked with recitation and impromptu songs, tended toward a universal acceptance of human differences and a celebration of similarities. As she professed to one audience, "as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike. That was one of the greatest lessons I learned."
Angelou in Print
Inspired by a meeting with novelist James Baldwin, Random House editor Robert Loomis, and cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy, Angelou broadened her considerable store of anecdotes into autobiography, a particular strength of black writers ranging from Linda Brent and Frederick Douglass to post-slavery narratives of Eldridge Cleaver, Anne Moody, Angela Davis, Claude Brown, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. She established a rigid working style: beginning with notes in longhand on yellow legal pads, she let the ideas flow. Then, supported by her Bible, dictionary, thesaurus, playing cards, ashtrays, snacks of cheese and bread, and bottles of sherry, she booked a downtown hotel room and sprawled across the bed, composing weekdays from six o'clock a.m. until noon, allowing no one to interfere. If the material flowed at a steady pace, she remained until early afternoon before returning to her residence. She continued for six months, going on several weeks' sabbatical, then returning to her hermitage until she had a manuscript ready for publication. By this process, in 1970, Angelou scored her first literary hit with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an immediate bestseller and the flagship of a multi-part autobiographical armada.
In 1973, Angelou married her third husband, Paul Du Feu, an English-born carpenter and remodeler, and settled in Sonoma, California. Immersed in projects, she composed music for the movie For the Love of Ivy, published articles, short stories, and poems for Harper's, Black Scholar Mademoiselle, Redbook, Life, Playgirl, Cosmopolitan, Ebony, and Ladies' Home Journal, continued writing autobiographies, produced original plays, lectured at state universities in Kansas and California, and served on the American Revolution Bicentennial Council. She earned an Emmy nomination for her cameo role as Kunta Kinte's grandmother in the 1977 television version of Alex Haley's Roots, adapted Sophocles's Ajax for the American stage, wrote for "Brewster Place," an Oprah Winfrey production, and composed songs for Roberta Flack. In 1981, after divorcing Du Feu, she received the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she lectures, organizes writing workshops, and continues publishing.
Again in the South
Resettlement in the South returned Angelou to home territory, where life had, at one time, seemed inequitable and discouraging to blacks. For personal reasons, she had avoided confronting Southern bigotry for twenty-two years. As she perceived the danger, "I knew that my heart would break if ever I put my foot down on that soil, moist, still, with old hurts." To questions about her choice of roosting places, she has replied that America must embrace the people it has rejected, whose contributions might have made a considerable difference in the nation's history. Content in her twelve-room house in Old Town and with the congregation of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, she has come to grips with the reality of the days of lynching, Jim Crow, Mr. Charley, and the Ku Klux Klan. In an optimistic mood, she noted in an interview with Michele Howe of the Newark Star-Ledger, "It is significant and a statement of intent to give a lifetime appointment to a black and to a woman. . . . The South has changed for both blacks and whites. People are returning to their roots or moving there for the first time, and they bring new and progressive ideas with them."
Angelou's life revolved around her son, Guy, a California personnel analyst, her grandson, Colin Ashanti Murphy-Johnson, her close friend and colleague, Dolly McPherson, her long-time secretary, Mrs. Mildred Garris, and a close circle of friends and admirers, including authors Jessica Mitford, Shana Alexander, and Rosa Parks. A restless, mellow-voiced, dynamic beauty who often dressed in the bright colors and styles of Ghana, she made herself at home in a variety of settings, both intimate and public. To interviewer Greg Hitt of the Winston-Salem Journal, Angelou, with her usual playful humor, remarked on a future goal: "I want to know more — not intellectually — to know more so I can be a better human being, to be an honest, courageous, funny, and loving human being. That's what I want to be — and I blow it about eighty-six times a day. My hope is to cut that to seventy."
Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Angelou has received a gratifying share of public acclaim. She holds honorary degrees from Mills College, Smith College, Lawrence University, Oberlin College, Mt. Holyoke, Boston
College, Spelman College, Brown University, Rollins University, North Carolina School of the Arts, and, the most significant, the University of Arkansas, in the backyard of land tilled by her great-grandmother, a slave. In 1976, Ladies' Home Journal chose her Woman of the Year in Communications; in 1987, she accepted the North Carolina Award for Literature. Two years later, she was named one of USA Today's fifty black role models. She has also been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, a Golden Eagle film award, and an Emmy for acting, and has received fellowships from Yale University and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1983, she accepted the Matrix Award from Women in Communications, Inc.; in 1990, along with dancer Judith Jamison and settlement worker Mother Clara Hale, she received the Candace Award, an honor extended by the National Coalition of Black Women to ten black Americans for achievement, character, and service. In 1993, she read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the presidential inauguration ceremonies, and four years later she wrote the lyrics to the musical "King!" which was staged during that year's presidential inauguration to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
To all this praise, she has said, "I'm convinced that I'm a child of God. That's wonderful, exhilarating, liberating, full of promise. But the burden which goes along with that is, I'm convinced that everybody is a child of God. . . . I weep a lot. I thank God I laugh a lot, too. The main thing in one's own private world is to try to laugh as much as you cry." To an interviewer's question about her influence, she replied, "Each of us, famous or infamous, is a role model for somebody, and if we aren't, we should behave as though we are — cheerful, kind, loving, courteous. Because you can be sure someone is watching and taking deliberate and diligent notes."