Harlem’s Maya Angelou, America’s Best Autobiographer

Maya Angelou born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 is an American autobiographer and poet who has been called “America’s most visible black female autobiographer” by scholar Joanne M. Braxton. She is best known for her series of six autobiographical volumes, which focus on her childhood and early adulthood experiences. The first, best-known, and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), focuses on the first seventeen years of her life, brought her international recognition, and was nominated for a National Book Award. Angelou has been highly honored for her body of work, including being awarded over 30 honorary degrees and the nomination of a Pulitzer Prize for her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie.

Angelou was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s, was active in the Civil Rights movement, and served as Northern Coordinator of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Since 1991, Angelou has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as recipient of the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. Since the 1990s she has made around eighty appearances a year on the lecture circuit. In 1993, she recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. In 1995, she was recognized for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.

With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was heralded as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. She became recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for black people and women. Angelou’s work is often characterized as autobiographical fiction, Angelou has, however, made a deliberate attempt through her work to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Her books, centered on themes such as identity, family, and racism, are often used as set texts in schools and universities internationally. Some of her more controversial work has been challenged or banned in US schools and libraries.

Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a doorman and navy dietitian, and her mother Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, was a real estate agent, trained surgical nurse, and later, a merchant marine. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya”, shortened from “my-a-sister”.The details of Angelou’s life, although described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles, tend to be inconsistent. Her biographer, Mary Jane Lupton, when speaking about these inconsistencies, has explained that when Angelou has spoken about her life, she has done so eloquently but informally and “with no time chart in front of her”.

Evidence suggests that Angelou’s family is descended from the Mende people of West Africa. A 2008 PBS documentary found that her maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, had been emancipated after the Civil War. The documentary suggested that Lee became pregnant by her former white owner, John Savin, who forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. A grand jury indicted Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County poorhouse in (Missouri) with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, who became Angelou’s grandmother. Angelou described Lee as “that poor little black girl, physically and mentally bruised”.

William Shakespeare, who had influence on Angelou’s early life and writings. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou states that she “met and fell in love with” Shakespeare as a child.

The first 17 years of Angelou’s life are documented in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When Angelou was three, and her brother four, their parents’ “calamitous marriage” ended. Their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas alone, by train, to live with his mother, Annie Henderson. Henderson prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because “she made wise and honest investments”. Four years later, the children’s father “came to Stamps without warning” and returned them to their mother’s care in St. Louis. At age eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty, but was jailed for one day. Four days after his release, he was found kicked to death, probably by Angelou’s uncles. Angelou became mute, believing, as she has stated, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…” She remained nearly mute for five years. Shortly after Freeman’s murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again.

Angelou credits a teacher and friend of Angelou’s family, a Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset. When Angelou was 13, she and her brother returned to live with her mother in San Francisco. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School and studied dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Three weeks after completing school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet. At the end of Angelou’s third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, her son changed his name to “Guy Johnson”.

Angelou’s second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19. This book “depicts a single mother’s slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime,”, Angelou at times working as a prostitute and as the madame of a brothel. The book describes how she moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education.

Adulthood and early career

Angelou has been married three times or more (something she has never clarified, “for fear of sounding frivolous”). In her third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Angelou describes her three-year marriage to Greek sailor Tosh Angelos in 1949. Up to that point, she went by the name of “Marguerite Johnson”, or “Rita”, but changed her professional name to “Maya Angelou” when her managers at San Francisco nightclub The Purple Onion strongly suggested that she adopt a more theatrical name that captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances. She won a scholarship and trained in African dance by Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, in 1952. During 1954 and 1955 Angelou toured through Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She begun her practice of trying to learn the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiencies in several languages. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, and co-created the dance team, “Al and Rita” with choreographer Alvin Ailey, combining elements of modern dance, ballet, and West African dance. In 1957, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso.

In the late 1950s, Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met a number of major African American authors, including James Baldwin, who would go on to become her close friend and mentor. After hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak for the first time in 1960, she joined the Civil Rights movement, going on to organize on their behalf, and becoming Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the early 1960s, Angelou briefly lived with South African activist Vusumzi Make; she moved with him and her son Guy to Cairo, Egypt, where she became an associate editor at the weekly newspaper The Arab Observer. In 1962, her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Ghana. She became an assistant administrator and instructor at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, was a feature editor for The African Review, acted in and wrote plays.

In Ghana, Angelou became close friends with Malcolm X and returned to the US in 1964 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of African American Unity; he was assassinated shortly afterward. In 1968, King asked her to organize a march, but he too was assassinated, on her birthday (April 4). Instead of celebrating her birthday, she sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, until King’s death in 2006. Inspired by a meeting with her friend James Baldwin, Angelou dealt with her grief at King’s assassination in 1968 by writing her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, which brought her first international recognition and acclaim.

Later career

In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a British-born carpenter and remodeler, and moved to Sonoma, California with him. The years to follow were some of Angelou’s most productive years as a writer and poet. She worked as a composer, including writing for singer Roberta Flack, and composed movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays, and spoke on the university lecture circuit. In 1977 Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, was the first original script by a black woman to be produced. In the late ’70s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey’s close friend and mentor. Angelou divorced de Feu and returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

In 1993, she recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit.

Maya Angelou reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993

Angelou campaigned for the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential primaries, giving her public support to Senator Hillary Clinton.In the run up to the January Democratic primary in South Carolina, the Clinton campaign ran ads featuring Angelou’s endorsement. The ads were part of the campaign’s efforts to rally support in the black community;but Obama won the South Carolina primary; finishing 29 points ahead of Clinton and taking 80% of the black vote.When Clinton’s campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Senator Barack Obama. When Obama won the election and became the first African American president of the United States, she stated, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism”. In 2009, Angelou campaigned for the same-sex marriage bill in New York state.

At the age of seventy, Angelou was the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, in 1998.

In late 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. They consisted of over 340 boxes of documents that featured her handwritten notes on yellow legal pads for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a 1982 telegram from Coretta Scott King, fan mail, and personal and professional correspondence from colleagues such as her editor Robert Loomis. In 2011, Angelou served as a consultant for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. She spoke out in opposition to a paraphrase of a quotation by King that appeared on the memorial, saying, “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit”, and demanded that it be changed. Eventually, the paraphrase was removed.

In 2013, at the age of 85, Angelou published the seventh autobiography in her series, titled Mom & Me & Mom, that focuses on her relationship with her mother.

Personal Life

Evidence suggests that Angelou was partially descended from the Mende people of West Africa. A 2008 PBS documentary found that Angelou’s maternal great-grandmother Mary Lee, who had been emancipated after the Civil War, became pregnant by her white former owner, John Savin. Savin forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. After Savin was indicted for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite the discovery that Savin was the father, a jury found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County poorhouse in Missouri with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, who became Angelou’s grandmother. Angelou described Lee as “that poor little Black girl, physically and mentally bruised.”

The details of Angelou’s life described in her seven autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tended to be inconsistent. Critic Mary Jane Lupton has explained that when Angelou spoke about her life, she did so eloquently but informally and “with no time chart in front of her”. For example, she was married at least twice, but never clarified the number of times she had been married, “for fear of sounding frivolous”; according to her autobiographies and to Gillespie, she married Tosh Angelos in 1951 and Paul du Feu in 1974, and began her relationship with Vusumzi Make in 1961, but never formally married him. Angelou held many jobs, including some in the sex trade, working as a prostitute and madame for lesbians, as she described in her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name. In a 1995 interview, Angelou said, “I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.’ They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives”.

Angelou had one son, Guy, whose birth she described in her first autobiography; one grandson, two great-grandchildren, and, according to Gillespie, a large group of friends and extended family. Angelou’s mother Vivian Baxter died in 1991 and her brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., died in 2000 after a series of strokes; both were important figures in her life and her books. In 1981, the mother of her son Guy’s son disappeared with him; finding him took four years.

In 2009, the gossip website TMZ erroneously reported that Angelou had been hospitalized in Los Angeles when she was alive and well in St. Louis, which resulted in rumors of her death and, according to Angelou, concern among her friends and family worldwide. In 2013, Angelou told her friend Oprah Winfrey that she had studied courses offered by the Unity Church, which were spiritually significant to her. She did not earn a university degree, but according to Gillespie it was Angelou’s preference that she be called “Dr. Angelou” by people outside of her family and close friends. She owned two homes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a “lordly brownstone” in Harlem, which was purchased in 2004 and was full of her “growing library” of books she collected throughout her life, artwork collected over the span of many decades, and well-stocked kitchens. Younge reported that in her Harlem home resides several African wall hangings and Angelou’s collection of paintings, including ones of several jazz trumpeters, a watercolor of Rosa Parks, and a Faith Ringgold work titled “Maya’s Quilt Of Life”.

According to Gillespie, she hosted several celebrations per year at her main residence in Winston-Salem; “her skill in the kitchen is the stuff of legend—from haute cuisine to down-home comfort food”. The Winston-Salem Journal stated, “Securing an invitation to one of Angelou’s Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas tree decorating parties or birthday parties was among the most coveted invitations in town”. The New York Times, describing Angelou’s residence history in New York City, stated that she regularly hosted elaborate New Year’s Day parties. She combined her cooking and writing skills in her 2004 book Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, which featured 73 recipes, many of which she learned from her grandmother and mother, accompanied by 28 vignettes. She followed up with her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart in 2010, which focused on weight loss and portion control.

Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou used the same “writing ritual” for many years. She would wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Bible, and would leave by the early afternoon. She would average 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she edited down to three or four pages in the evening. Angelou went through this process to “enchant” herself, and as she said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, “relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang.” She placed herself back in the time she wrote about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to “tell the human truth” about her life. Angelou stated that she played cards in order to get to that place of enchantment and in order to access her memories more effectively. She stated, “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!” She did not find the process cathartic; rather, she found relief in “telling the truth”.

Death

Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. She was found by her nurse. Although Angelou had reportedly been in poor health and had canceled recent scheduled appearances, she was working on another book, an autobiography about her experiences with national and world leaders. During her memorial service at Wake Forest University, her son Guy Johnson stated that despite being in constant pain due to her dancing career and respiratory failure, she wrote four books during the last ten years of her life. He said, “She left this mortal plane with no loss of acuity and no loss in comprehension”.

Tributes to Angelou and condolences were paid by artists, entertainers, and world leaders, including President Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama, whose sister was named after Angelou. Harold Augenbraum, from the National Book Foundation, said that Angelou’s “legacy is one that all writers and readers across the world can admire and aspire to.” The week after Angelou’s death, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings rose to #1 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list.

On May 29, 2014, Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, of which Angelou was a member for 30 years, held a public memorial service to honor Angelou. On June 7, a private memorial service was held at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. The memorial was shown live on local stations in the Winston-Salem/Triad area and streamed live on the university web site with speeches from her son, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Bill Clinton. On June 15, a memorial was held at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, where Angelou was a member for many years. Rev. Cecil Williams, Mayor Ed Lee, and former mayor Willie Brown spoke.

In 2015 a United States Postal Service stamp was issued commemorating Maya Angelou with the Joan Walsh Anglund quote “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”, though the stamp mistakenly attributes the quote to Angelou. The quote is from Anglund’s book of poems A Cup of Sun (1967). On April 4, 2018, Google presented a doodle to honor her 90th birthday.

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