Maya Angelou: The Black Woman Who Could Not be Moved
American literature today is unimaginable without the contributions of the ‘phenomenal woman’, Maya Angelou. A poet, a writer, a memoirist and an activist, Angelou’s literary contributions are indispensable. On her birth anniversary, we remember her and her most celebrated works.
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
The Early Life of Maya Angelou:
Born as Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4th April 1928, Angelou did not have an easy childhood. She was born to parents Bailey Johnson and Vivian Johnson, and had an older brother. The marriage between Vivian and Bailey was tumultuous, and the ‘calamitous marriage’ came to an end when Angelou was merely three. The children were sent, alone on a train, to live with their grandmother Annie Henderson. Claudia Johnson writes that Angelou’s life during the Great Depression was “an astonishing exception” as the trio survived through these difficult years. Annie had a convenience store that sold essential commodities, and thus was able to live comfortably with her grandchildren.
However, when Angelou was seven, her father turned up at Annie’s door to take the children to their mother in St. Louis. There, her mother’s boyfriend Freeman raped her, an incident which she told her brother Bailey Jr. Bailey Jr then informed the family. Freeman was found guilty but was prisoned for a day. After his release, he was found murdered.
Angelou was traumatized. She never spoke for nearly five years, believing her voice to be the reason that killed Freeman. She wrote later,
“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.”
Marcia Ann Gillespie believes that it is in these years that the love for books was inculcated in Angelou. Angelou resumed speaking after being helped by a family friend, Mrs Bertha Flowers. It was she who introduced Angelou to writers like Poe, Dickens and Black female artist like Anne Spencer, Jessie Fauset and Frances Harper. These would continue to inspire Angelou throughout the span of her long literary career.
Freeman’s murder brought another change for the Johnson siblings. They were sent back to their grandmother’s care, Annie. There Angelou and her brother attended the Lafayette County Training School.
Angelou had been aware of the differences between the white and the black races in America. For instance, she recalls, “I went downtown sometimes, and I saw the white school, which was four times larger, and bricks and all that. But I don't remember envying that. I thought my school was grand!” Her comment reveals that she may not have understood the connotations of the white school being larger, but she did realize the difference between both.
Marguerite received the moniker “Maya” by her elder sibling Bailey Jr and the name stuck throughout her life.
A Glance at Maya Angelou’s Career:
Angelou married Tosh Angelos in the year 1951. Tosh was Greek, and an electrician. He used to be a sailor and had ambitions of being a musician. Even when people frowned upon interracial relationships, Angelou married Tosh, without her mother Vivian’s approval. Her marriage ended three years later in 1954, after which she took to calypso dancing. During her marriage to Tosh, Angelou had met Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Ailey formed a dance team with Angelou. The team was named ‘Al and Rita.’ She found success as a solo artist, which compelled her managers to make her adopt the name “Maya Angelou” instead of Marguerite Johnson.
It was in 1959 that Angelou would focus on her literary career, after she met the novelist John Oliver Killiens. Killiens convinced her to move to New York where she would join the Harlem Writers Guild. There began a long career of political activism and writing, one which would immortalize her name in the literary canon.
Angelou moved to Cairo, Africa with her son Guy after meeting South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make. After her relationship with Make ended, she moved to Accra, Ghana, with the aim that her son could gain a college education. Unfortunately, Guy was involved in an accident which compelled Angelou to stay in Ghana until 1965.
Angelou’s career is not limited to writing, and she was heavily involved in socio-political activism. She met several influential figures such as James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was on her 40th birthday, on April 4th, 1968, that she would be told of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This year would mark the creation of her first autobiography, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Maya Angelou was a prolific writer and has experimented with both prose and poetry as her chosen medium of expression. Her works borrow extensively from her personal history but cannot be limited to that. Angelou’s identity as a proud African American woman shines in her literary pursuits.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
The first in a series of seven autobiographies, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ established Maya Angelou as a remarkable writer. The book written in 1968 became critically acclaimed. Angelou incorporates dialogue and plot in her autobiography, and pens a poignant narrative of sexual abuse, race and violence. The chronology is non-linear, to emphasize the themes. The book has been a topic of controversy, something that even Toni Morrison’s Beloved faced due to their treatment of race and abuse. It is precisely why Angelou’s book cannot be separated from the politics of race and must be read in the same context. The other texts in her autobiography include “Gather Together in My Name” (1974), “Singin’ and Swingin’”, “Porgy and Bess” and “Gettin’ Merry like Christmas”, “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986) and “The Heart of a Woman” (1981). She wrote the final instalment of her autobiographies, in 2002 – “A Song Flung Up to Heaven.”
And Still I Rise
Perhaps the most famous of all her anthologies, “And Still I Rise” was published in 1978. This collection included 32 of Angelou’s poems, including “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman.” This was her third volume of poetry and is remembered to this day. This volume firmly establishes Maya Angelou as a poet of protest. She challenged conventions, she challenged existing prejudices. Angelou’s distinctive poetic voice of resistance manifests in the following lines from “Still I Rise”:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.”
All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes
This is one of Angelou’s autobiographies and is drawn from her experiences in the “mother continent,” Africa. It serves a recovery of Angelou’s identity as an African American woman during her stay in Ghana. Loss of identity is a common theme in Black literature, as one attempt of the colonizers was the erasure of ‘savage’ identities. It creates a conflict in the Western, American woman as she is acquainted with her roots.
The Heart Of a Woman
This book perhaps first caught the attention of the masses when Oprah Winfrey championed it in her Book Club. One of its themes is motherhood and is based on her experience as a single mother as she tries to raise her son Guy. She moves to New York with her son Guy and finds herself living with Black men and women.
I Shall Not Be Moved
Published in the year 1980, this is Maya Angelou’s fifth collection of poems. It captures the experiences of black men and women and their struggle to be liberated. It is confrontational, political and another example of poetry of resistance. It includes diverse themes, such as the labourer in “Worker’s Song” and “Our Grandmothers” which charts the trajectory of an enslaved woman who attempts to break free.
“She lay, skin down in the moist dirt,
the canebrake rustling
with the whispers of leaves, and
loud longing of hounds and
the ransack of hunters crackling the near
She muttered, lifting her head a nod toward
I shall not, I shall not be moved.”
Maya Angelou stands out as an indomitable figure. Her poems changed several ideals, as she called out the standards of beauty, of racial prejudice and more. One cannot limit her to texts studied in school for the sake of exams. She is the epitome of ‘the personal is political’ and one cannot help but be in awe of such a figure.
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”
- Debaduti Dey
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