Fry cook, trolley car driver, dancer, actress, world traveler, producer and director of plays, movies, and television programming, autobiographer, educator, historian, poet, civil rights activist, and member of two presidential committees, Maya Angelou challenged the constraints of social stereotypes, gender boundaries, and racial restrictions to become one of the most influential voices of the twentieth century. Her life spanned some of the most tumultuous moments in American memory—the Great Depression, World War II, the Jim Crow South and the Civil Rights Movement—yet rather than becoming entangled in them, Angelou molded the challenges that she encountered to form an eloquently candid and poignant body of work, becoming an unrivaled chronicler of the heartrending history of a generation.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928, Maya Angelou entered the world on the threshold of the Great Depression. Her parents, a card dealer and a doorman, divorced when Angelou was only three, and she and her brother spent much of their childhood being shuffled across state lines from Missouri to Arkansas, alternately living with their mother and their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. Henderson, a tough and tenacious woman, imbued her granddaughter with the strong religious tenor and the indelible bond of the black community in the South, an influence that would provide a much needed source of strength and solace throughout Angelou’s life. Though the tense climate of racial inequity and prejudice during the time spent in her grandmother’s Southern home undoubtedly left its mark, the most traumatic experience of Angelou’s childhood was to occur while in St. Louis with her mother, where, at age seven, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Young Maya’s experience was further complicated when her uncles took justice into their own hands, murdering Angelou’s aggressor and leaving their young niece to associate her confession, not the crime itself, with the man’s death. Fearing the mortal effects of her voice, she did not speak another word for five years. Behind the veil of her silence, Angelou developed an insatiable appetite for literature and a keen capacity for observation, attributes that would prove to be invaluable in shaping the sharp honesty of her work.
At the age of seventeen, Angelou had a son, and spent the next years of her life engaged in a variety of jobs ranging from line cook to Calypso performer, anything to keep herself and her son above water. In 1958, however, Angelou made a decision that was pivotal in changing the trajectory of her life. Marking what would become a lifetime commitment to writing and civil rights, she joined the Harlem Writers’ Guild, a group with whom she helped write and produce a number of programs and plays that brought civil rights issues to the surface of popular consciousness. It was not long before her interest expanded beyond the limited scope of the stage and into the political arena; Angelou became the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an influential voice in the work of both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The tragic extinguishing of these two beacons of hope left Angelou devastated, and yet, true to form, she used the pain and heartache of the loss of her two friends as a catalyst to propel her to action. In 1969, Angelou published “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the first of seven autobiographical accounts that take an unprecedentedly honest look at the complexity of race, gender, family and identity in the Jim Crow South and beyond. The book skyrocketed Angelou to the height of popular acclaim, becoming the first non-fiction best seller by a black American woman, and marking what would become a life-spanning stream of achievements and awards. Angelou was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for her success on the page and screen, and was awarded a Grammy for her performance of “On the Pulse of the Morning,” a poem that was composed for and presented at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton. She was awarded over thirty honorary doctoral degrees, taught for thirty-two years at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, served on two Presidential Committees and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.
Even more extraordinary than Maya Angelou’s accolades is the lasting impression of her legacy. Through the song and spirit of her work, Angelou chronicled the personal trials of her own life, and in doing so, gave a face to the zeitgeist of a generation, providing a lasting lyrical narrative of the pain, hope and promise of the twentieth century, an intimate glimpse into the reshaping of a nation.