Maya Angelou was an acclaimed writer, poet, and civil rights activist, who pioneered the autobiographical writing style. Angelou integrated her real life experiences about love, painful loss, music, discrimination and racism, and struggle in her many poems, books, and screenplays.
Maya Angelou, born April 4, 1928 in St. Louis Missouri, was initially named Marguerite Johnson. Her parents divorced at a young age and sent her and her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. There, she faced all the discrimination and racism that came along with being African American. When visiting her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 7. Being so traumatized by the event, she was mute for over five years.
During World War II, she studied dance and acting at California Labor School in San Francisco. She was also the first Black San Francisco cable car conductor during this time. Her acting and singing career set off during the mid-1950s where she performed in numerous plays, including Porgy and Bess, Calypso Head Wave, and Miss Calypso. Angelou was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild and hosted a fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during her musical Cabaret for Freedom. Angelou also spent time traveling abroad, and taught at the University of Ghana for a period of time. She also joined a community of "Revolutionist Returnees” and became good friends with civil rights leader, Malcom X.
Among her 36 works, Angelou’s first and most prominent work was an autobiography titled “I Know Why the Caged BIrd Sings” in 1969 conveyed themes of racism and segregation in the South from her early childhood. It illustrated how strength of character and a love for literature can help to overcome all things. A personal favorite is And Still I Rise, a poem that exemplifies themes about self-respect and confidence. Angelou showed how to overcome all the hatred and bigotry she’s faced and that society will not determine her own successes.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
In January 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Clinton;s inaugural ceremony. In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., by President Barack Obama. Angelou later died on May 28, 2014 in Salem, North Carolina. In May 2021, Maya Angelou was announced to be one of the first omen to be commemorated with a new series of quarters from the U.S. Mint.
Today, Maya Angelou remains one of the most influential women of all time. She changed American culture during a time of systemic racism and bigotry. A phenomenal woman, Angelou is a key example to young women around the world today and is forever a model for overcoming obstacles with pride and confidence.