“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”
― Maya Angelou
The accomplishment of one woman of color born in the Deep South, Missouri, in 1928 reads like something out of feel-good fiction. She speaks French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language; she has worked with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and danced with Martha Graham. She holds over 30 honorary degrees from Universities all over the world. She was the first black female director. She is a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, journalist, historian and civil rights activist. She is Maya Angelou.
The writer Marcia Ann Gillespie co-authored a biography about her titled “Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration.” Marcia identified with Maya both as an African American woman, and as an ancestor of a race of survivors, believers, dreamers and achievers. It is perhaps Oprah Winfrey, in the forward to Marcia’s book, who best captures the tenacity and intense humanity of Maya Angelou:
“In all the days of my life I never met a woman who was more completely herself than Maya Angelou. She fully inhabits and owns every space of herself with no pretense and no false modesty…she is fully aware of what it means to be human, and to share that humanity with others.”
There’s a seemingly endless list of additional achievements and rewards, but I want to get to the woman herself. Maya was born Marguerite Johnson, second child to Bailey Johnson and Vivian Baxter in Missouri. In one of her most well known books “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” she explains how she came to be called Maya — she was nicknamed by her older brother Bailey. Maya comes from ‘mya sister.” When she was three, her parents divorced and Maya and Bailey were sent to Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother. 4 years later Maya and Bailey were returned to their mothers care. At the age of eight her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She told her brother, who in turn told the rest of the family. After only one day in jail the boyfriend was released but he was killed 4 days later—most likely by Maya’s Uncles. This stopped Maya from talking, she went mute, because she was afraid that her voice had killed him —and that in speaking she would cause other people harm.
She was persuaded to speak again by a caring close friend of the family and school teacher Bertha Flowers who introduced her to literature. As soon as Maya overcame muteness she memorized all 2000 lines of Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece. Maya dropped out a high school and got a job as San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor, where she then returned to school and graduated. Three weeks after graduation she gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson, who later became a poet in his own right.
In Marcia’s biography she recounts the litany of professions that Maya undertook in order to support herself and her son. Maya worked as a Madame the front-woman or business manager for a brothel, a restaurant cook and a prostitute.
Against her family’s wishes, but in the spirit of Maya acting exactly as Maya, she wed a Greek electrician and aspiring musician Enistasious (Tosh) Angelous. The marriage lasted 4 years, and afterwards Maya danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco. At this time she took the name “Maya Angelou.”
In 1959 she met James O. Killens, a novelist who encouraged her to move to New York and focus on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and there she met many influential black authors. From there she lived in Egypt and Ghana. Ghana is where she met Malcolm X with whom she worked with to create the Organization of Afro-American Unity (http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/gen_oaau.htm).
After Malcolm X’s assassination, Maya worked with Martin Luther King Junior as the National Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When King was assassinated it was on Maya’s birthday in 1968 and she was temporarily overcome with despair. Through her grief she wrote her series of autobiographies such as, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “A Song Flung up to Heaven.” Like any writer worth their salt, there have been attempts to ban Maya’s work for her frank discussions on rape, homelessness, homosexuality and pregnancy.
Young women can look to Maya to see a life lived in fullness. In her story there is hardship, there is standing up to the white supremacist patriarchal majority. Maya’s life serves as a reminder to any would-be disenfranchised soul that there is hope there is compassion, there is kindness. Where there is hardship (and with the war on women there is plenty of that) look to our elders and know that we shall overcome. Thank stars that Maya is alive and working today, and there is no wiser or more prolific feminist currently alive.