- Virginia Johnson
Maya Angelou is famous today for her memorable words. She should also be remembered for her indomitable spirit.
A Difficult Beginning
When she was only three and her brother four, her parents split up, and her father put both children on a train by themselves to go live with their grandmother in Arkansas.
Although they reunited with their mother four years later, Maya (a nickname from her brother) suffered horrific abuse while living with her, with the end result that she was very traumatized. She stopped speaking altogether for five years, and was returned to her grandmother’s care.
During that second time at her grandmother’s, Maya did find an escape in books, which were introduced to her by a beloved teacher who also eventually taught Maya to speak again. When she was 14, she and her brother went to live with their mother again, who had moved to Oakland, California. Maya gave birth to her only child, Guy, three weeks after graduating from California Labor School. After finishing school, Maya took a series of jobs, some illegal.
Music and Dance and Writing
In 1951, she married Tosh Angelos, a Greek who had worked as a sailor and as an electrician and was also an aspiring musician, though her mother disapproved of the interracial marriage. About this time, Maya took modern dance classes, eventually becoming a professional dancer and singer. Her marriage to Tosh ended in 1954, and, from 1954-1955, she toured Europe in a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. Maya made a point of learning the language of every country she visited and so became multi-lingual. Calypso music was very popular in the 1950s, and Maya recorded an album, Miss Calypso, which was rereleased in the 1990s.
When she returned to America, Maya realized she wanted to work more seriously on her writing. In time, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she was encouraged by other writers and was soon published.
Maya wrote about the hardships of her early life, turning her writing into series of autobiographical novels for older readers, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).
Working for Better Days for Everybody
Maya met Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and eventually became a civil rights leader with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Maya also went to Africa where she worked as a reporter, just as the African countries were being released from European colonialism.
In her later years, she was well-respected, a grand dame of African American literature. Like everyone, Maya did not live a perfect life, but in time she had the bravery to move forward and shine in the arts and to shine a light in the darkness of civil strife, both in this country and overseas. She certainly lived a very full life and left behind a rich and thoroughly human legacy.
Fast Facts about Maya Angelou:
Born: April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri
Birth name: Marguerite Annie Johnson
Parents: Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer
Children: one son, Guy Johnson
Marriages: Tosh Angelos (1951-1954), Paul du Feu (1973-1981)
Selected Awards: a Pulitzer Prize nomination; the National Medal of the Arts in 2000; the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011; and three Grammy awards for her spoken word albums. Although she never graduated from college, she held more than 50 honorary degrees out of respect for her work. At President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Maya Angelou was asked to recite her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” and she has been called “the black woman’s poet laureate.”
Died: May 28, 2014
Meeting Maya Today
Despite the harsh circumstances under which she grew up, Maya’s warmth, wisdom, and humor shone in her work, and some of her poems were written specifically for children. Below is a selected list of works by and about her for younger readers that can be checked out from our library, as well as a recording of Maya reading one of her poems that encourages young ones to be brave.