“I will not allow anybody to minimize my life, not anybody, not a living soul — nobody, no lover, no mother, no son, no boss, no President, nobody.” – Maya Angelou –
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou –
MAYA ANGELOU was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, St. Louis, MO, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya”, derived from “My Sister.” When Angelou was three and her brother four, their parents’ “calamitous marriage” ended. Maya and Bailey, with a label on their wrists which read “To Whom It May Concern,” were dispatched by train, all alone, from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson in “an astonishing exception” to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time.
Angelou’s grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because “she made wise and honest investments.”
Under the care of the Old South paternal grandmother, they called “Momma,” and their semi-paralyzed Uncle Willie, the children lived in the town’s black quarter in the rear of the family-owned grocery and feed store. There they absorbed iron-clad, no-nonsense religious and moral training, punctuated by lashes with a switch from a peach tree, and reminders that the Almighty brooked no laxness and that Momma Henderson tolerated neither dirt nor backtalk. Maya’s escapism from her grim, dutiful everyday life led her to read classic literature, particularly white writers — Shakespeare, Kipling, Poe, Thackeray, and James Weldon Butler — and notable black authors — Paul Dunbar, Langston Hughes, W E. B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson.
Four years later, the children’s father “came to Stamps without warning” and returned them to their mother’s care in St. Louis. Maya, thoroughly indoctrinated with Momma’s strictures, was reintroduced to the easy ways of the big city, where her self-absorbed mother drank and danced in gambling halls, kept company consistently with a new man, and encouraged her babies to enjoy food, music, and other indulgences which had been in short supply in Stamps.
At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was beaten to death by Angelou’s uncles. The tenderhearted eight year old, refusing to speak, crept into a wounded, private world of fear and guilt. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated, “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 could kill anyone …” It was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.
Unsuited to the demands of an emotionally damaged child, her mother Vivian returned Maya to Stamps, where, with Momma’s guidance, she rebuilt self-esteem by cocooning herself from the outside world, reading classic literature, excelling at school, and imitating the genteel, bookish tastes of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, an old-school black Southern aristocrat who ministered to her need for pampering. Maya grew up in a fatherless home in Arkansas’ cotton belt, where, as she remembered it, “the high spots were usually negative: droughts, floods, lynchings and deaths.” Angelou credits Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a teacher and friend of her family, with helping her speak again.
Following Maya’s graduation with honors from the eighth grade at Lafayette County Training School in 1940, Angelou was 14, she moved in with their mother once again, who had since moved to Oakland, California. Bailey joined them a month later. Later, after Vivian married Daddy Clidell Jackson, the family eventually settled in a fourteen-room house on Post Street in San Francisco’s Fillmore district.
During World War II, Angelou attended the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Angelou said they refused to give her an application at first because of the color of her skin. But her mother Vivian encouraged her to persevere, and after two weeks of returning to the office every day, she finally got the job. “I loved the uniforms,” she said.
Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde Johnson (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson). She wrote in her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” that she became pregnant after having sex with a neighborhood boy to prove she wasn’t a lesbian. Johnson is her only child. A few years after Guy was born, her grandmother died, the grief sent her reeling. It was then that she gave herself what one might call a Maya manifest: She would live—fully and that she did!
Angelou had one grandson, and two great-grandchildren, a large group of friends and extended family. Angelou’s mother Vivian Baxter died in 1991 and her brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., died in 2000 after a series of strokes; both were important figures in her life and her books.
Angelou’s life has certainly been a full one: from the hardscrabble Depression era to pimp, prostitute, supper club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, and eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew Billie Holiday, and Abbey Lincoln.
To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has.
Angelou worked as a prostitute and a madam when she was a struggling mother. To omit that from her biography is to ignore the transformative parts of Angelou’s life that made her special. Terrified of arrest for her illegal activities, she hastily returned to Stamps, then Louisville, where the army accepted, then ousted her because of her connection with the California Labor School, which was sponsored by the Communist Party. In the interim, she eased the pain of rejection with marijuana and a new career hoofing to “Blue Flame” and “Caravan” as one half of the exotic dance duo of “Poole and Rita.”
However, when Angelou became aware of her brother Bailey’s deep despair over the death of his young wife, Eunice, she returned her attention to family matters, and, in spite of his great sorrow, Bailey, concerned for the company his sister was immersed in, forced her to give up her dissolute life. A yearning to support herself drove Angelou to sell stolen clothes for a junkie, but on his advice, she stayed free of drugs, escaped the seamy life, and again sought a legitimate job.
In 1951, Angelou married Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother. She took modern dance classes during this time, and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Angelou, her new husband, and her son moved to New York City so she could study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
After Angelou’s marriage ended in 1954, she formed her nom du pen by combining her nickname, Maya, with a version of her ex-husband’s last name. She changed her professional name to “Maya Angelou”, a “distinctive name” that set her apart and captured the feel of her calypso dance performances. Searching for outlets for her talents in the 1950s, she danced and sang calypso and blues at San Francisco’s Purple Onion, New York’s Village Vanguard, and Chicago’s Mr. Kelly’s.
During 1954 and 1955, Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of learning the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages. In 1957, riding on the popularity of calypso, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, which was reissued as a CD in 1996. She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the 1957 film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.
Angelou met novelist John Oliver Killens in 1959 and, at his urging, moved to New York to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, and was published for the first time.
In 1960, after meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and hearing him speak, she and Killens organized “the legendary” Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and she was named SCLC’s Northern Coordinator. According to scholar Lyman B. Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and “eminently effective”. Angelou also began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.
In the 1960s, she sang at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and appeared in off-Broadway New York theatrical productions, including “Heatwave” and Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” performing with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson.
Also in 1961, she met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, a suave South African anti-apartheid leader from Johannesburg; they never officially married. She and her son Guy moved with Make to Cairo, where Angelou worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper, As Madame Make, she lived in a milieu where her chocolate brown skin and nappy hair were accepted as “correct and normal.” Although the relationship dissolved in 1962 after she grew tired of her mate’s patriarchal attitudes, mismanagement of money, and infidelities, she remained in Africa and for two years served as the first female editor of the Arab Observer, a Cairo news weekly.
Moving on to Accra, she settled Guy into college, then remained to nurse him after an automobile accident broke his neck, an arm, and a leg. While administering the School of Music and Drama, she starred in “Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage” at the University of Ghana. To supplement her meager salary, she also wrote for the Ghanaian Times and the African Review, a political journal.
In Accra, she became close friends with Malcolm X during his visit in the early 1960s. Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1965 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity; he was assassinated shortly afterward. Devastated and adrift, she joined her brother in Hawaii, where she resumed her singing career, and then moved back to Los Angeles to focus on her writing career. She worked as a market researcher in Watts and witnessed the riots in the summer of 1965.
In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed, but “postpones”, in what was called “a macabre twist of fate”, King was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4). Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by her friend James Baldwin.
In the late 1970s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey’s close friend and mentor.
She married Paul du Feu in 1973. To their neighbors in northern California, Maya Angelou and her unlikely husband, Paul du Feu, were the beauty and the bloke. She was the luminous writer and actress.
Angelou still was callously (if correctly) introduced by the likes of Barbara Walters as “an ex-prostitute.” Admittedly, it’s easy to sensationalize the pasts of Maya and Paul and their marriage. Aside from his current vocation as a master carpenter, du Feu was manifestly (40 to her 47), ungifted (by his own description) and unblack. Paul was a Welsh-born workingman and comic strip writer who won notoriety as “Mr. Germaine Greer.” His second wife was the feminist author of The Female Eunuch. Actually, Paul and Germaine were wed only three tempestuous weeks “in the eyes of God,” he maintains, though they didn’t bother to divorce for six years. “I didn’t mind the ‘Mr. Greer’ part of it,” he reflects, “but in retrospect it seems we spent our married life in pubs, smashed on our bums. I would not marry her again, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone else. She is a sexy, funny lady.”
Paul first spotted Maya in Soho. She had just published her best-selling autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “This tall, handsome Englishman came up and asked if I were alone,” Maya recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, why?’ and he told me I was the most beautiful woman in the world and could he take me to dinner—right now? Well, we’ve never been apart a single night since, except for professional commitments
At first Paul’s reputation as a super-stud seemed to rule out wedlock: he had been the first nude centerfold of British Cosmopolitan, plus wrote an insouciant sexual memoir, “Let’s Hear It for the Long-Legged Woman.” (Maya stands six feet tall; Paul 5’11½”.) The idea of legalization was Paul’s. “But he never white mailed me,” she notes wryly. “He said that if I were British or he black he’d be agreeable to merely live together. But with the difference in cultures, he wanted to make a public statement. So we married.” What’s more, Maya says, “We liked the ceremony so much, and love each other so much, that we’ve been married twice since, and we’ll do it again.” Angelou described their marriage as “made in heaven.” Life was so merry for Maya but in 1981, Angelou and du Feu divorced.
In 1977, Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. She was given a multitude of awards during this period, including over thirty honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world. She returned to the southern United States in 1981 because she felt she had to come to terms with her past there. She considered herself “a teacher who writes”. Angelou taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing. She was the first black woman director and producer for 20th Century Fox.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported that even though she made many friends on campus, “she never quite lived down all of the criticism from people who thought she was more of a celebrity than an intellect…and an overpaid figurehead”.
Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
In 2009, the gossip website TMZ erroneously reported that Angelou had been hospitalized in Los Angeles when she was alive and well in St. Louis, which resulted in rumors of her death and according to Angelou, concern among her friends and family worldwide.
Angelou did not earn a university degree, but it was Angelou’s preference that she be called “Dr. Angelou” by people outside of her family and close friends. She owned two homes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a “lordly brownstone” in Harlem, which was purchased in 2004 and was full of her “growing library” of books she collected throughout her life, artwork collected over the span of many decades, and well-stocked kitchens.
She hosted several celebrations per year at her main residence in Winston-Salem; “her skill in the kitchen is the stuff of legend—from haute cuisine to down-home comfort food”.
Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou used the same “writing ritual” for many years. She would wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Bible, and would leave by the early afternoon. She would average 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she edited down to three or four pages in the evening.
Angelou went through this process to “enchant” herself, and as she said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, “relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang.” She placed herself back in the time she wrote about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to “tell the human truth” about her life. Angelou stated that she played cards in order to get to that place of enchantment and in order to access her memories more effectively. She stated, “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!” so she did not find the process cathartic; rather, she found relief in “telling the truth”.
President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 2011.
Angelou’s life revolved around her son, Guy, a California personnel analyst, her grandson, Colin Ashanti Murphy-Johnson, her close friend and colleague, Dolly McPherson, her long-time secretary, Mrs. Mildred Garris, and a close circle of friends and admirers, including authors Jessica Mitford, Shana Alexander, and Rosa Parks.
A restless, mellow-voiced, dynamic beauty who often dressed in the bright colors and styles of Ghana, she made herself at home in a variety of settings, both intimate and public. To interviewer Greg Hitt of the Winston-Salem Journal, Angelou, with her usual playful humor, remarked on a future goal: “I want to know more — not intellectually — to know more so I can be a better human being, to be an honest, courageous, funny, and loving human being. That’s what I want to be — and I blow it about eighty-six times a day. My hope is to cut that down to seventy.”
Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on May 28, 2014 at the age of 86. Angelou had been “frail” and suffering from heart problems.
President Obama praised poet and author Maya Angelou as “one of the brightest lights of our time” in a statement mourning her death. The president noted that his mother was inspired to name his sister Maya after Angelou.
President Clinton said. “I will always be grateful for her electrifying reading of ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at my first inaugural, and even more for all the years of friendship that followed.”
I was proud to read that her birthplace was St. Louis Missouri and so is mine. I was honored to hear her speak at The University of Central Florida. She glided onto the stage in a glittery gold sequin jacket, singing an African hymn in her throaty contralto. She moved her body slowly to the music, looking deep into the audience and I’d swear she was looking straight at me.
The audience exploded in applause, laughter, chants and cheers. The sold-out crowd was in love. I wept as she recited my favorite poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” That day, Angelou told us stories about overcoming odds and maintaining her faith; stories about her childhood. My idol, Maya Angelou’s life was a gift. A gift to women. A gift to humanity. A gift of genius.
As Angelou told her stories of abuse, silence, triumph, love and failure, she was carving space for other black women, like me, to insert our work. By simply being, Angelou gave me the courage to tell the truth about my life in my novel, “To Dance with Ugly People.” I’ve heard from those who feel, “some things just shouldn’t be said,” because they grew up in the era of silence being a mode of survival.
Secrets protected black women from the scorching realities of a world intent upon pulling us limb from limb. Angelou’s own memoir was also bold in a time when silence was considered a shield. Angelou defied that tradition. She told the secrets we’re told to swallow and never regurgitate. In telling her truth, no matter the consequences, Angelou birthed a generation of word warriors who weren’t afraid to put pen to page. She created a new canon of black women writers – I see myself as one.
Trailblazing is an understatement. Angelou’s powerful works tell women of color that our stories matter. No matter how complex, messy, and untranslatable those experiences are, they are worth telling and they are worth reading.
Angelou told black women writers that we could rise through whatever pains us, and still see the rainbow on the other side of the storm.
After losing multiple Black Freedom Movement icons in a single decade, Dr. Angelou could’ve sheltered and shuttered. Instead, she danced. She hit the jitterbug with Amiri Baraka over the interred ashes of Langston Hughes. That joy radiated and attracted multitudes of black women into her fold.
Her last words to us before she left the stage that day were a line from her poem, “And Still I Rise:” “Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/I rise.” We stood and applauded, and I wondered if she knew how much we cherish her.
If there was one person I could sit down and talk to living or dead, who would be that person? Maya Angelou! Phenomenal Woman
Because of a past that’s rooted in pain/I rise!