I was sixteen years old when I first read Maya Angelou’s infamous, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ her first of seven autobiographies which brought her worldwide recognition an
I was sixteen years old when I first read Maya Angelou’s infamous, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ her first of seven autobiographies which brought her worldwide recognition and acclaim. I’d picked it up in a charity shop, thinking it could be a good text for my English literature course of which the theme was identity.
I now cannot think of a more appropriate text for that course. And here I am, six years on, faced with the impossible task of writing a tribute to a woman who I, like so many others worldwide, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, admire beyond belief.
Call her what you will—writer, poet, civil rights activist, professor, dancer, singer, director, producer, or from the earlier years: prostitute, streetcar conductor, chef. Like her works transcended and continue to transcend class, race and gender, Maya Angelou transcended all of these roles to become what US President Barack Obama described last week as ‘one of the brightest lights of our time.’
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928, Angelou experienced a turbulent upbringing. Along with her older brother, Bailey Jr., she was passed back and forth between her mother’s house and the house of her paternal grandmother, after her parents’ marriage ended when she was just three.
Aged 8, she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s then boyfriend, Freeman. Freeman was found guilty of the crime yet sent to jail for just one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, most likely by Maya’s uncles. This marked the beginning of almost five years during which Maya was mute, feeling that her voice had killed Freeman, and could therefore harm others.
Aged 17, three weeks after finishing school, Maya gave birth to what would be her first and only child. Her second autobiography, ‘Gather Together in My Name,’ details this period in her life, during which she was forced to resort to crime and prostitution in order to provide for her young son.
In 1951, Angelou married a Greek aspiring musician, which caused difficulties due to her mother’s objections and the prominent condemnation of interracial relationships at the time. This relationship was the first of a few—she went on to date South African freedom writer Vusumzi Make, before marrying Welsh carpenter, Paul de Feu, in 1972, who she then divorced in 1981.
During her first marriage, Angelou took up dance lessons which led to her touring Europe. There she began to learn the language of every country she visited, ending up fluent in a number of foreign languages.
1959 was the year which really kick-started Angelou’s career. Upon moving to New York, she met numerous African-American authors and had her work published for the first time. Shortly after this, she came across Martin Luther King Jr.
Hearing him speak was what inspired Angelou and novelist James O Killens to arrange ‘Cabaret for Freedom,’ a theatrical event, to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She became the Northern coordinator for this conference and began her work as a pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activist.
In 1965, after spending a period in Africa, Angelou returned to the US to help fellow human rights activist Malcolm X build a new civil rights organisation, the ‘Organisation of Afro-American Unity.’ Malcolm X was assassinated shortly after, devastating Maya, devastation which was further compounded by Martin Luther King’s assassination three years later in 1968.
Despite heartbreaking setbacks, Maya went on fighting for her cause, notably becoming the first black woman to write a screen play, when she wrote ‘Georgia Georgia’ in 1972 and the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since 1961 when she read her poem, ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at former President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.
Maya’s last published work was her seventh autobiography, ‘Mom & Me & Mom,’ in 2013. At the time of her death, she was working on an eighth autobiography which detailed her experiences with national and world leaders.
From her first autobiography to her last, her first poem to the final one, Angelou’s will remained the same: ‘All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.’
Bruised, battered, beaten, but never defeated.
The name ‘Maya’ came from her brother’s childhood claims that she’s ‘my-a sister.’ How fitting in that she went on to become a sister of the world, teaching each of us that our place in this world is as valid and deserved as the place of anyone else.
Thank God that caged bird did sing. RIP Maya Angelou, may you now truly rise.
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Image: Adria Richards / Wikimedia Commons