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Maya Angelou was a wonderful and inspirational woman. I’m dusting off that history degree again to bring you a little story about a woman who came from very little and went on to impact the world with her autobiographies and poetry.
We’ll start at the start…
Maya was born Marguerite Annie Johnon on April 4th 1928. She sadly died on May 28th 2014. She was well known for her poetry and series of memoirs, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which details her life up to the age of 17.
This start in life wasn’t the best.
When she was age three, and her brother Bail age 4, they were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.
There, their grandmother owned a small convenience store opposite cotton fields.
Maya learned a lot here.
When she was seven, her father turned up unannounced and decided that her and her brother were to move back to California with their mum.
Unfortunately, it was a few months later, aged eight, that Maya was sexually abused by her mum’s boyfriend.
She refused to tell anyone what had happened for a long time as the culprit had told her he’d kill Bailey if she did – the only person she cared about.
Bailey eventually persuaded her to tell him, assuring her that he wouldn’t let the man kill him.
The culprit was arrested, but only jailed for one day. Shortly after, Maya’s mum received a visit from the police to let her know that her boyfriend had been killed.
It is thought this was at the hands of her protective uncles.
Maya convinced herself that the reason he was dead was because she had spoken his name. She felt responsible for it. And so she stopped talking to save anyone else dying. Maya became very withdrawn after this, and was shortly sent back to Stamps with her brother.
A lady called Mrs Flowers became her teacher whilst she was there and taught in various subjects, in particular English literature.
Eventually Mrs Flowers, presumably tired of not hearing Maya speak, told her that she must not like poetry as she could not fully appreciate it until she spoke it herself. After much belabouring of this point, Maya eventually gave in and tried speaking the poem herself.
In an interview, and this is not a direct quote, she said she discovered that she had abandoned her voice, but her voice hadn’t abandoned her.
Off to work
When she was 14, and Bailey 15, they moved back to California to live with their mum again.
And at 16 she became the first black female cable car driver.
Maya gave birth to her son at age 17.
It was hard to find work to support her son at this time. Maya definitely didn’t have time for writing as she spent a lot of time on the road and often travelled as part of various shows.
In 1954, she was danced professionally around San Francisco and began her singing career.
She was writing a little, on and off. In 1959, she met author John Oliver Killens, who encouraged her to move back to New York to join the Harlem Writers Guild.
It was whilst she was back in New York that she met Martin Luther King Jr, and was inspired by him.
During 1961 she performed on stage, including a play called The Blacks, which was written to expose racial prejudices and stereotypes, and black identity.
Shortly after, her and her son moved to Cairo with her then love interest, where Maya worked as an associate editor at a weekly English Language newspaper.
She speaks very highly of her time in Cairo, and about the many parties and social gatherings she hosted and attended.
1962 she broke it off and her and Guy moved to Ghana so he could attend university there. Unfortunately he was injured in a car accident.
She worked for the university of Ghana and was active in the local African American community that were living in Ghana. She met Malcolm X whilst there, who was in the country to gain support for his civil rights campaign.
In 1965 she moved back to the US to support him in his new civil rights organisation, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, but he was assassinated shortly after.
She went to Hawaii to join her brother and resume her singing career
The reason I want to tell you about all these little twists and turns in her path is to demonstrate that writers are not born, writers are not necessarily always on the writing path. But they can still make amazing writers if they want to.
Maya then started writing more regularly
During the 60s, she took part in various civil rights protests and marches. Martin Luther King Jr asked her to organise one in 1968. Unfortunately, he was assassinated weeks later on April 4th, her 40th birthday.
She later wrote, produced and narrated a 10 part tv series, Blacks, Blues, Black! It is a documentary about blues music and Black American’s African heritage
She wrote her first autobiography about her early life in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, after being asked several times by Random House editor Robert Loomis – she didn’t want to do it originally.
Loomis finally persuaded her to do it and it brought her international recognition and acclaim. Suddenly everyone wanted Maya to appear on TV shows all over the world. Her writing career started with a bang.
She was 41 when she published her first book – don’t forget that.
Her first book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, wasn’t published until 1971, two years later.
Jack of all trades
She has recorded music, acted in plays, composed music for movies, written articles, short stories, TV scripts, documentaries, autobiographies, and poetry, produced plays, and even acted in movies and on TV.
Appeared in a supporting role in Roots, a tv mini series that is very famous.
She was even nominated for a Pulitzer prize and, in 1993, she was asked by President Bill Clinton to write a poem, for which she came up with the famous “On the Pulse of Morning”
Just goes to show…
…that it doesn’t matter where you start in life, or what you have to do to get by, or even how old you are, you can become an amazing writer if you want to and if you put the work in.
Want to know more?
First and foremost, I’d recommend reading her autobiographies. That’s where you’ll learn the most about her.
You can also check out the below videos: