This Day In Literary History
On April 4th, 1928, the legendary African-American writer Maya Angelou was born. She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. When Maya was three, her parents divorced. She and her four-year-old brother Bailey were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Arkansas.
Maya's grandmother managed a successful general store, so for the next four years, Maya and Bailey lived a relatively comfortable and happy life during the early years of the Great Depression. Then, when Maya was seven, her father showed up out of the blue and decided to bring his children to live with their mother.
The move would prove to be a tragic disaster. Maya was sexually abused and assaulted by her mother's boyfriend. She told her brother, Bailey, and he told the rest of the family. The boyfriend was arrested and convicted, but served only one day in jail. Four days after his release, he was murdered - allegedly by Maya's uncles, but it couldn't be proven.
After the boyfriend's murder, Maya and Bailey were sent back to their paternal grandmother in Arkansas. The trauma of her sexual abuse would cause Maya to become mute for nearly five years, as she believed that she had killed her mother's boyfriend with her voice.
A teacher and a family friend would help Maya overcome her psychosomatic muteness. That same family friend, Bertha Flowers, introduced her to literature and great authors such as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Shakespeare.
When Maya was fourteen, she and her brother were again sent to live with their mother in Oakland, California. While she attended high school, she worked part time jobs, including a position as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
At seventeen, Maya found herself pregnant. Three weeks after graduating from high school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who would grow up to become a poet like his mother. Struggling to provide for her son with no help from his father, she took up the life of a working single parent.
With employment opportunities for black women very limited at the time, Maya picked up work where she could find it, drifting from city to city. She plunged into poverty and was forced to turn to crime to support herself and her child, prostituting herself and managing other prostitutes.
Maya determined to escape the streets and did so using her talent for dancing. While taking modern dance classes, she struck up a friendship with legendary African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey.
Together, they formed a dance team called Al and Rita (Rita was her nickname) and performed for black organizations in San Francisco. The dance team ultimately proved unsuccessful, so Ailey and Maya parted ways.
A year later, Maya had built a successful solo act, dancing and singing at clubs in San Francisco. Sometimes she used her real name, Marguerite Johnson. Sometimes she used her nickname and billed herself as Rita Johnson.
While performing calypso songs and dances at the famous nightclub The Purple Onion, her managers and her fans both encouraged her to adopt a distinctive stage name. So, she chose the name Maya Angelou.
A couple years later, in 1954, Maya landed a role in a production of George and Ira Gershwin's classic opera, Porgy and Bess, and toured Europe for a year. After that, she recorded Miss Calypso, an album of calypso songs she had written. She would sing her calypso songs in an Off-Broadway show called Calypso Heat Wave.
By 1961, Maya switched gears and took up acting, co-starring in a production of Jean Genet's classic play, The Blacks. Her cast mates were a who's who of great African-American actors and actresses, including Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, Cicely Tyson, and Abbey Lincoln.
Around this time, Maya had become a civil rights activist after hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1960. She became close friends with civil rights leader Malcom X and helped him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
She would be devastated twice when first Malcolm X was assassinated, then another assassin's bullet claimed the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. - on her 40th birthday. She was consoled by her close friend, legendary African-American novelist James Baldwin, who encouraged her budding writing career.
Though she had started her literary career writing plays, it was her first book that made her name as a writer. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) was the first of a six volume series of autobiographies. Covering the first seventeen years of her life, it was more than just an autobiography - it was a remarkable work of literature.
Maya not only chronicles her own childhood rape, she also uses rape as a metaphor for the suffering of blacks at the hands of racist whites - which she had witnessed firsthand for nearly the first fifty years of her life.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would be adapted as an acclaimed made-for-TV movie in 1979; Maya wrote the teleplay. Other memorable volumes of her autobiography series include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), and The Heart of a Woman (1981).
Of course, Maya was most famous for her poetry collections, of which she has written nearly two dozen. Her most famous of these is her classic 1978 poetry collection, And Still I Rise, the title poem of which was used for a famous advertising campaign for the United Negro College Fund.
Maya Angelou also wrote children's books, essays, and screenplays, and recorded spoken word albums. She has received numerous awards for her works - too numerous to mention.
She held numerous honorary degrees and a lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she has taught everything from philosophy and science to writing.
In 1993, Maya read her classic poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. In 2011, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Maya Angelou died in November of 2014 at the age of 86.
Quote Of The Day
"Nothing so frightens me as writing, but nothing so satisfies me. It's like a swimmer in the [English] Channel: you face the stingrays and waves and cold and grease, and finally you reach the other shore, and you put your foot on the ground — Aaaahhhh!" — Maya Angelou
Today's video features Maya Angelou speaking at Evergreen State College in 2007. Enjoy!