“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that Beauty.” Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is one of the great voices in contemporary literature. She is a remarkable woman: a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director. Few people realize the difficult path she walked to achieve the recognition she enjoys today.
Marguerite Johnson was born on April 4, 1928 in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her father was a naval dietitian and her mother a nurse. Her brother, Bailey Jr., gave her the nickname “Maya”.
When Maya was three and her brother four, their parents’ marriage broke up. The children were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. As a member of an African-American family, Maya experienced the discrimination and humiliation to which many blacks were subjected at that time.
After five years, the children were returned to their mother in St. Louis. Tragically, Maya was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The trauma of these events caused the child to become mute and she was soon returned to her grandmother. She didn’t speak again for almost five years.
Angelou credits her friend and teacher, Bertha Flowers, with helping her to speak again and with introducing her to classical literature and famous authors. She also became familiar with black female artists, such as Frances Harper and Anne Spencer.
In 1940, when she was 13, Maya was returned to her mother in San Francisco where she attended high school and worked as the first black streetcar conductor in the history of San Francisco. She also became pregnant.
Maya gave birth to her son, Guy, at the age of sixteen. She relates the story of this period of her life in the first book of her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.
The second installment, “Gather Together in My Name” chronicles her life from her late teens to her early twenties. As an impoverished young black single parent, Maya worked as a Creole cook, a madam, a tap dancer, a prostitute and as chauffeur.
She also moved through a series of relationships and cities as she attempted to raise her son although she had no job training or advanced education. These were difficult years.
Angelou’s third book, “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” covers her life from ages twenty-two to twenty-seven. Maya married a white, Greek ex-sailor, Tosh Angelos, but soon found she wasn’t suited to marriage. She filed for divorce and resumed her dancing career. She toured Europe with a production of the opera “Porgy and Bess” in 1954-1955.
In 1960, Maya moved to San Diego and became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. She also traveled and lived and worked briefly in Egypt and Ghana. Her fourth novel, “The Heart of a Woman” covers this period. It relates events experienced in her thirties, as well as reflections on her son, marriage, the Civil Rights Movement and her own writing.
Maya’s fifth autobiography “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes”, shows she has developed a sense of connection to her African heritage. She has adopted Ghana as her homeland, although she has traveled extensively and speaks many languages among them French, Italian and Spanish.
Since the 1990’s she has been busy writing, lecturing, composing music, making guest appearances and teaching. In 1993, she authored a poem in honor of Bill Clinton and recited it at his inauguration ceremony.
In 2008, Maya, became involved in the American presidential race, throwing her support behind Senator Hillary Clinton. When Clinton’s campaign ended, she became a supporter of Barack Obama.
Now age 80, Maya Angelou has overcome many challenging obstacles in her lifetime, barriers which might have defeated lesser mortals. She has become a role model for women, for African Americans, for anyone who starts life at a disadvantage and must struggle for equality. In fact, her words can act as an inspiration for all of us:
“I can be changed by what happens to me. but I refuse to be reduced by it.” Maya Angelou