Celebrating Women’s History Month

Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou known as Maya Angelou was an American author, civil rights activist, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and award-winning author best known for her award-winning memoir,I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing– the first American best seller by an African American woman. Angelou received several honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009.

Early life

Born on April 4th, 1928 in St Louis, Missouri, Angelou had a difficult childhood. She and her brother Bailey had to live with her father’s mother in Arkansas after their parents split up. Not only she experienced firsthand racial discrimination during these early years, but she was also sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of seven. Traumatized by this incident, Angelou stopped talking and stayed virtually silent for five years. During this silence, she found her love in poetry.

Angelou as the first black female cable car conductor

During the World War II Angelou moved to San Francisco, California, where she received a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School. Angelou became the first black female cable car conductor – a job that she held briefly.

Angelou as a singer, artist, and activist

In 1950s, she landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, later appearing in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and releasing her first album, Miss Calypso (1957). Soon she became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild and a civil rights activist and she organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also serving as the SCLC’s northern coordinator.  In 1961, Angelou appeared in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson. In 1973, Angelou went on to earn a Tony Award nomination for her role in a play – Look Away and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television miniseries Roots in 1977.

Angelou as an editor and a freelance writer

 

Living first in Egypt and then in Ghana, Angelou worked as an editor and a freelance writer in 1960s besides holding a position at the University of Ghana for a time. In Ghana, she also joined a community of “Revolutionist Returnees” exploring pan-Africanism and became close with human rights activist and Black nationalist leader Malcolm X. In 1964, upon returning to the United States, Angelou helped Malcolm X set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Angelou’s famous poems

Angelou’s several collections of poetry gained fame but her most famous was “Just give me a cool drink ‘fore I Diie (1971)” which was also nominated for Pulitzer Prize.

Other famous collections of Angelou’s poetry include:

 

In January 1993, Angelou recited On the Pulse of Morning, at the President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ceremony, a poem she especially wrote for this occasion. She won a Grammy award as the best-spoken word album, for the audio version of the poem.

Other well-known poems by Angelou include:

  • His Day Is Done (1962), a tribute poem Angelou wrote for Nelson Mandela as he made his secret journey from Africa to London
  • Amazing Peace (2005), written by Angelou for the White House tree-lighting ceremony

Angelou’s Books

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s enormously successful memoir about her childhood and young years. The poignant story made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. The book, which made Angelou an international star, continues to be regarded as her most popular autobiographical work. In 1995, Angelou was lauded for remaining on The New York Times‘ paperback nonfiction bestseller list for two years—the longest-running record in the chart’s history.

Angelou and her work have inspired millions of Americans and the people of world. Her success and her work despite her difficult life paved the way for many African Americans writers, and millions of people across the globe for whom Maya Angelou is a true hero. This includes the youngest inaugural poet Amanda Gorman too, who proudly adorned the pendant of a caged bird during her recital at the President Biden’s inaugural address honoring Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings.

1995, Angelou was lauded for remaining on The New York Times‘ paperback nonfiction bestseller list for two years—the longest-running record in the chart’s history.

Angelou’s other works

‘Gather Together in My Name (1974) – Angelou’s follow-up to A Caged Bird, this memoir covers her life as an unemployed teenage mother in California, when she turned to narcotics and prostitution.

Singing and Swingin and Getting Merry Like Christmas (1976)  –  Angelou wrote this autobiography about her early career as a singer and actress.

The Heart of a Woman (1981) – Angelou crafted this memoir about leaving California with her son for New York, where she took part in the civil rights movement.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) – A lyrical exploration about what it means to be an African American in Africa, this autobiographical book covers the years Angelou spent living in Ghana.

Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now(1994) – This inspirational essay collection features Angelou’s insights about spirituality and living well.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) – Another autobiographical work, A Song Flung Up to Heaven explores Angelou’s return from Africa to the U.S. and her ensuing struggle to cope with the devastating assassinations of two human rights leaders with whom she worked, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Letter to My Daughter (2008) – Dedicated to the daughter Angelou never had, this book of essays features Angelou’s advice for young women about living a life of meaning.

Mom & Me & Mom (2013) – In this memoir, Angelou discusses her complicated relationship with a mother who abandoned her during childhood.

Cookbooks – Interested in health, Angelou’s published cookbooks include Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes (2005) and Great Food, All Day Long (2010).

Angelou as a Screenplay Author and Director
After publishing Caged Bird, Angelou broke new ground artistically, educationally, and socially with her drama Georgia, Georgia in 1972, which made her the first African American woman to have her screenplay produced. In 1998, seeking new creative challenges, Angelou made her directorial debut with Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard.

Accomplishments and Awards
Angelou’s career has seen numerous accolades, including the Chicago International Film Festivals 1998 Audience Choice Award and a nod from the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999 for Down in the Delta. She also won two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, for her 2005 cookbook and 2008’s Letter to My Daughter.

Famous Friends
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
a close friend of Angelou’s, was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968. Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta’s death in 2006.

Angelou was also good friends with TV personality Oprah Winfrey, who organized several birthday celebrations for the award-winning author, including a week-long cruise for her 70th birthday in 1998.

        10 INSPIRING FACTS ABOUT MAYA ANGELOU

·       SHE WAS THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO CONDUCT A CABLE CAR IN SAN FRANCISCO.

·       PORGY AND BESS TOOK HER TO EUROPE.

·       SHE SPOKE SIX LANGUAGES.

·       SHE DIDN’T SPEAK FOR FIVE YEARS IN HER YOUTH.

·       SHE EDITED THE ARAB OBSERVER.

·       SHE WROTE AND DIRECTED SEVERAL MOVIES.

·       MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. WAS ASSASSINATED ON HER BIRTHDAY.

·       SHE WAS ONLY THE SECOND POET IN HISTORY TO RECITE WORK AT A PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION.

·       SHE WAS AN AVID CHEF AND WROTE TWO COOKBOOKS.

·       SHE HAD HER OWN LINE OF HALLMARK GREETING CARDS

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