Maya Angelou, A Classic American Writer
Born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Arkansas and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, Maya Angelou lived a very interesting, full life. Her life was marked by some extraordinary experiences. For example, she spent part of her childhood being raised by her grandmother, Mamma Henderson. At age eight, she was raped by her mother’s live in boyfriend. At seventeen she had a son, Guy. Also, Angelou was the first black conductor on the streetcars in San Francisco. She made her living as a young woman as a dancer, an actress, and a singer. She performed in an international tour of Porgy and Bess and a European tour of The Blacks. She was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in Roots. She directed pieces for PBS. Her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was made into a television movie. She was also the director of Down in the Delta, a movie About an African-American family trying to stay together and survive by staying connected to their ancestors. She was a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Angelou’s extraordinary career shifted over the years from performing to writing.
In the 1960’s, Angelou lived in Africa. She moved there after marrying Vusumsi Make, a South African freedom fighter. They lived in Egypt during their short marriage. While there, Angelou was the editor of The Arab Observer. After divorcing Make, Angelou and her son moved to Ghana. There she worked on The African Review and taught at the University of Ghana.
"I am first a writer..."
It is difficult to describe Angelou’s full life. She attempted to describe her own life in a series of autobiographies beginning with her most famous book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In “Order Out of Chaos” Mary Lupton described Angelou as a “dancer, mother, administrator, director, daughter, actress…rape victim, wife, singer, granddaughter, composer, streetcar conductor, silenced Black child living in the American South, and an African-American living in Ghana” (809). In an interview for the Detroit News, Angelou said of herself, “I am first a writer, and second I’m a teacher…I have my work to do” (Schleier 1).
Maya Angelou was best known for her writing of serial autobiography and poetry. Some of her works include: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, several volumes of poetry, and Even the Stars Look Lonesome. Even the Stars Look Lonesome is just one example of Angelou’s writing where she shared her observations, views, experience, wisdom, and spirit in a collection of twenty essays.
Over the years, I have read the work of Maya Angelou. I have taught her works in my classroom. I have enjoyed watching her in interviews, as she brought a great spirit to everything she did. One of my great disappointments in life was when she had to cancel her speech at my sister’s college graduation due to an illness. It would have been an amazing moment to hear her speak, as she commanded an audience like no other. She was a phenomenal woman. She was an inspiration and wonderful example of how to live life. After living such an extraordinary life, she died on May 24, 2014. She left behind her spirit and her wisdom with her work. In my mind, Maya Angelou made her mark on literary history, and she will always be at the top of my list of greatest American writers.
What is your favorite Maya Angelou book?
A look at Angelou's life...
Lupton, Mary Jane. “ Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou.” Black American Literature Forum. 24.4 (1990), 809-814.
Schleier, Curt. “The Interview: Poet Maya Angelou still has a mission: To teach out youth.” Detroit News. [Detroit, Mich.] 3 Sept. 1997, final edition: F1.