Brimming with wisdom, charisma and passion, the American poet and author who passed away in 2014 would have celebrated her 90th birthday today. Many would agree that she was a remarkable role model and activist of whom celebrated and recorded the experience of what it is to be black in America.
Dr Angelou was born and named Marguerite Johnson in St Louis, Missouri, on the 4th April 1928. She was the daughter of a nurse and nightclub habituee, Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson. Not together for long, her parents broke up and her mother, struggling to look after two young children, sent Maya and her younger sibling, Bailey Junior, to stay with their grandmother, who owned a store in Arkansas. The nickname Maya, stemmed from her brother's funny way of saying “My-a sister”.
Angelou spent her early years growing up in one of America's most deprived areas, experiencing first-hand prejudice and the racial discrimination that accompanied segregation in the Deep South. It's an experience that you can see being strongly brought to life in the initial volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was published in 1970. When she visited St Louis, at the age of just seven, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. After opening up to her family about what her mother's boyfriend had done, the man was arrested and tried. When the time came for him to be released from jail, he was murdered shortly afterwards - most likely by her uncles, her mother's brothers. Riddled with a misplaced guilt, she refused to talk for the next five years.
In her later recollections, she said, “I was a volunteer mute. I had voice but I refused to use it,”
“When I heard about his murder, I thought my voice had killed a man and so it wasn’t safe to speak.
“After a while, I no longer knew why I didn’t speak, I simply didn’t speak.”
A whirlwind of a career
In spite of being mute, Maya became an avid reader, and was ultimately encouraged to talk by one of her grandmother's friends who perceived her love of poetry and said, if she wished to experience it wholesomely, she needed to speak it out loud. In her recollections, Maya remembered her informing: “You will never love poetry until you actually feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips.” At a later date, Angelou went on to stay with her mother in San Francisco, and became re-acquainted with her father who lived in California. At aged 15, she pestered a San Francisco streetcar company to make her into one of the city's first ever female cable car conductors. At just 16, Maya gave birth to a son, following a one-night stand that came about largely out of inquisitiveness. Her career was somewhat extraordinary and, indeed, not your stereotypical path to success. It included early phases as a dancer, waitress, pimp and prostitute, to her later movement towards becoming an actress and singer, recording Calypso songs and appearing on Broadway.
Her love life was equally as unconventional, as she acquired two to three husbands along the way, taking her surname from the first, a striving Greek musician, Enistasios Angelos.
In the 1960's she starting working as a northern co-ordinator for Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and then accompanied Vusumzi Make, the South African freedom fighter, to Cairo, wherein she moved into the occupation of journalism.
Going on a trip to Ghana with her son, she met the Black activist Malcolm X, and went back to the United States in 1965 to collaborate with him, though he, alongside Martin Luther King, was assassinated.
“I along with a number of young people at the time had been disenchanted, and felt angry and protested inequality,” she said to the BBC upon recollecting her experiences with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
“But until the Civil Rights movement came along there was no clear way to oppose the inequities.
“I was very sure that between the two men, and the women, between the followers of both groups, we would certainly have a land where all the people, all the faith groups, all the Adams and Eves would have a chance to stand for a while in the sun. When those two men were killed we all stumbled about like blinded moles. It was really disastrous for Black Americans.”
Maya's friend, the writer James Baldwin, encouraged her to write and publish the initial volume of autobiography. Unsurprisingly, it was a sell-out, and an additional six volumes followed over years.
Her literary ambitions didn't stop at writing an autobiography though. She started publishing her poetry, writing screenplays, presented a TV series about the Blues and the African heritage of Black Americans, and adopted the role of Kunte Kinte's African grandmother in the ground-breaking series 'Roots', about the Black slavery experience.
Moving into the 80's, Maya showcased another of her talents. Upon becoming an academic at the prestigious Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Maya practised her cookery, which she became renowned for.
Talk about multi-talented.
Angelou's poetry came into the limelight when Bill Clinton asked if she could read a poem at his 1993 inauguration. Her poem 'On The Pulse of the Morning' included the lines: "“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived/But if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
In 2010, Obama awarded her the prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Not long after, Angelou recalled that, in the 60's, King predicted that America would have a Black president. She hadn't thought it would be possible. Over the course of her life, she was a brilliant phrase maker. In her southern voice she delivered slow, deliberate lines, in grammatically perfect and complete sentences.
A dominating woman, she was six feet tall, and simply captivating. Perhaps most memorable was her strong character. She believed that life, was to be lived to the max. “The excitement is not just to survive,” she once said, “but to thrive, and to thrive with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.”