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Maya Angelou: From Prostitute to Poetaster to Professor

Updated on October 7, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Maya Angelou

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Introduction: Wearing Many Hats

One critic has said of her, "Maya Angelou has touched more bases in her career than Hank Aaron." Others might think of her as a renaissance woman for all of her so-called accomplishments as poet(aster), essayist, songwriter, playwright, editor, actor, dancer, director, historian, and professor.

Included in Angelou's list of professions is the one considered the oldest profession; she served as both a prostitute and a madam.

Angelou was also not shy about weighing in on politics: she was a "strong supporter of Cuba's Fidel Castro." Joining such luminaries as Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam and the activists seeking release from prison the cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, she supported many left-wing causes in the name of civil rights.

The late Maya Angelou was a poetaster, who dabbled in the writing of essays, songs, and plays. She also touched on the professions of editor, dancer, director, actor, (she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in Alex Haley's Roots), and professor, as she made her way from prostitute to world-wide, beloved star.

As Angelou's sycophant fans seek to elevate her as a renaissance women, others realize she was little more than a "jack of all trades, master of none."

The Phony Professor

When Angelou was not traveling and delivering speeches, she occupied the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, where she "taught" since 1981. Hardly qualifying as a "professor," Angelou taught only one course per semester, and students have reported that she occupied no office on campus.

On senior explained: “The office listed for her in the Wake Forest telephone directory is a storage closet in a building far from the main part of campus.” Another reported: " . . . you'll find that her on campus office is actually the bell tower!" Her rating on "Rate My Professors" boasts a measly 2.6 on a 5-pont scale."

Margaret Feinberg writes a glowing memory of an Angelou class, yet at the same time reveals the poverty of Angelou's teaching style: spending the first three weeks of a semester having the students learn one anothers' names!

Angelou was awarded numerous honorary doctorates, and she took full advantage of them by calling herself Dr. Maya Angelou, an unearned title, because she did not earn a doctoral degree. Actually, she never even earned a bachelors or masters degree, having never attended college at all.

Of course, Ms Angelou has the last laugh on her critics regarding her lack of academic acumen: although she perhaps occupied no academic office space, she now boasts a resident hall standing in her name: Maya Angelou Hall! What! they left of the "Dr"?

Since 2002, The Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity has been studying the "racial and ethnic disparities in health care and health outcomes."

Also in Angelou's name was created the "Maya Angelou Presidential Chair" at Wake Forest, currently occupied by the unhinged Melissa Harris-Perry. (Sadly, Harris-Perry's ranting is what currently passes for education in today's universities, but note that MSNBC did have the good sense to fire her from her news anchor position.)

Other Gigs

Angelou teamed up with Target and the Poetry Foundation to create a project that introduces children and adults to poetry. The project is called "Dream in Color." Few individuals have exploited the color their skin to the degree that the former Marguerite-Johnson-turned-Maya-Angelou did, Barry-Soetoro-turned-Barack-Hussein-Obama, notwithstanding.

Likely, Angelou's best gig, the one formidably suited for her level of talent, was her stint with Hallmark Greeting cards.

Two samples of the drivel she created for Hallmark: "The wise woman wishes to be no one's enemy, the wise woman refuses to be anyone's victim" and "Life is a glorious banquet, a limitless and delicious buffet."

Childhood

Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis on 4 April 1928. At age seven, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. She confided this information only to her brother, but later she learned that one of her uncles had killed the man who raped her.

Fearing that her words had killed a man, she refused to speak and did not utter a word until she reached age thirteen. She periodically lived with her mother and grandmother, who introduced her to literature.

Leaving high school for a short period, she became a cable car conductor in San Francisco. She returned to high school, and then she gave birth to her son a few weeks after graduation. Her life was difficult, but she never gave up on her interests in the arts, dancing, and writing.

Marguerite Johnson Becomes Maya Angelou

After marrying Tosh Angelos, a Greek sailor, she got a job as a nightclub singer. She changed her name from Marguerite to Maya and altered the Angelos to Angelou and became "Maya Angelou" (pronounced "angelo" not "angelu.")

Angelou toured Europe with a production company, studied dance with Martha Graham, and released an album titled Calypso Lady in 1957. Her interest in writing became strong, and she moved to New York, where she joined a Harlem writing group. She continued acting in off Broadway plays.

Years Abroad

In 1960, Angelou met and married South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make; the couple relocated to Cairo, Egypt, where Angelou worked as editor of the English language weekly paper The Arab Observer.

After the marriage dissolved, Angelou and her son moved to Ghana, where she worked as a music instructor at the University of Ghana; she also served as an editor at The African Review, while writing for The Ghanaian Times.

Returning to America

After Angelou returned to America in 1960, she began her writing career in earnest, producing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first autobiography, which was published in 1970.

This first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, gave Angelou national recognition.

In all, Angelou penned seven autobiographies.

Angelou also wrote a book of essays titled, Letter to my Daughter, despite the fact that she had no daughters.

Angelou's play Georgia, Georgia was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

"Phenomenal Woman"

One of Angelou's most famous pieces is "Phenomenal Woman." This piece is quite accessible, as are all of her so-called poems.

Angelou's mystique is in her ability to perform many tasks and perform them well enough to make many people believe she is in fact a phenomenal woman, instead of simply an accomplished schmoozer.

A Self-Invention: Famous for Being Famous

Angelou has explained that she decided to invent herself because she did not like the inventions that others had invented for her. She was six feet tall, making her physically imposing.

Angelou's main talent was indeed in making a silk purse out of a sow's ear—not a small feat. Despite her lack of true talent in any of her chosen fields of dabbling, she managed to gain recognition in many of them.

As some accomplishment-free yet widely celebrated folks like the Kardashians and Zsa Zsa Gabor are famous for being famous, Maya Angelou was noted for being noted.

Angelou did have the ability to make people notice her, but even more sweet for her was her ability to make herself seem accomplished when, in fact, her talent was mediocre at best.

Still, the fact that Marguerite Johnson could transform her life in such a gigantic, flamboyant manner into the highly successful "Dr. Maya Angelou" on such little poetic talent speaks volumes for the grit and tenacity the woman possessed; that is something to be admired, even if not emulated.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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