Maya Angelou’s Legacy

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"Maya Angelou tribute" by Kate Merriman

“I’m convinced of this: good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter. As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.” – Maya Angelou

Isabella Espinosa

     Each year, February gives way for the honorary celebration of Black History Month: a celebration of more than just Africans, but their empowering history and their struggle for freedom. Black History Month was officially established as a national observance by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Prior to his official decree, various educational facilities and organizations celebrated black history in their own manners. A point of significance is that the 13th amendment abolishing slavery was adopted by the United States 38th Congress on February 1, 1865. Black History Month serves as a month of reflection, respect, and tribute toward various black figures and events that changed the course of history. One of those figures is Maya Angelou, an African American author, poet, historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, screen and stage producer, director, performer, singer, and civil rights activist. As a renaissance woman, Angelou believed that if you “study it, and you put reasonable intelligence and reasonable energy, reasonable electricity to it, you can do it”; she never limited her abilities, nor the abilities of others around her. 

     Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Maya’s parents split at a young age and she and her older brother Bailey were sent to live in rural, segregated Arkansas with their grandmother. Angelou experienced racial injustice first-hand in a town where segregation was legal. When Angelou was 7, she was traumatized by her mother’s boyfriend who was later killed by her uncle; as a result, she went mute for 5 years because she believed her words killed the man. Maya’s prolonged period of silence prompted her to take a deep interest in literature. As she went silent, her mind flourished with ideas as she wrote various poems and stories to convey her inner thoughts. Angelou would test her mind by memorizing conversations such as “60 Shakesperean sonnets”, several Edgar Allen Poe pieces, and 75 Paul Laurence Dunbar poems. Her tragic plunge into mutism gave way for her memory, mind, and mastery of expression to surface and shape her excellence. She used that excellence to learn Spanish, French, Italian, and West African Fanti as well as writing 36 books, having roles in 30 different films, plays, and television programs, and creating 5 spoken word albums. The list of Angelou’s accomplishments is endless, but her journey to achieve them was the most remarkable part. 

    In 1940 during World War 2, Maya moved to San Francisco, California upon earning a scholarship to study dance and acting at the progressive California Labor School. Angelou dropped out of school to become the first black, female cable car conductor at the young age of 16. Shortly after, she gave birth to her son Guy in 1944 and had to work various jobs to support him as a single mother. Angelou knew of her mother’s great wealth and “14-room house”, but she refused to accept anything but a home-cooked meal once a month to remain true to herself. Later in 1952, she married Greek sailor, Anastasios Angelopulos, and consequently changed her name to Maya Angelou to better suit her rising career as a nightclub singer. Within the next 10 years, she toured Europe performing the stage productions Porgy and Bess & Calypso Heat Wave, studied modern dance with Martha Graham, released her first album Miss Calypso, and became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Martin Luther King’s request. At this point, it’s well-known that Angelou lived an adventurous life, full of diverse experiences and encounters that shaped her into an empowering woman. However, Angelou’s zest for life wasn’t always prominent; she recalls her thoughts on death, “it so terrified me that I double-locked the doors; I made certain that the windows were double-locked—trying to keep death out.” But once she realized there was nothing she could do to fend it off, she started truly living and enjoying her life at that. 

    In hopes of starting fresh, Maya moved with her son to New York in 1959 where she fell in love with and married civil rights activist Vusumzi Make. A year later, the three of them moved to Cairo, Egypt where Angelou became the associate editor of the Arab Observer, the only English-inclusive news magazine in the Middle East. Shortly after, they moved to Ghana in 1964 where Maya coincidentally became the feature editor of the African Review, wrote for the Ghanian Times & Broadcasting Company, as well as taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music & Drama. While in Ghana, Angelou joined a community of “Revolutionist Returnees” where she met black nationalist leader Malcolm X and started her civil rights advocacy journey. While working with Malcolm, Maya explored pan-africanism and how it could unite ethnic Africans around the globe; pan-africanism is a movement that encourages the strengthening of bonds between all indigenous and ethnic groups of African descent, and a movement that solidified Angelou’s passion for African advocacy. As a result, Angelou returned to the United States in 1964 to assist Malcolm with setting up the Organization of Afro-American Unity and focus on her writing career. 

     Within the years that followed, Maya would write, star in, and publish some of her finest works: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (69’), her film Georgia, Georgia (72’), and her Broadway debut in Look Away (73’) & Roots (77’). Angelou made her biggest mark on the country when she delivered her poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration. As the first African-American female to read her work at an inauguration, not only did Angelou’s presence speak volumes, but so did her words: “History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” She recognized that change could not occur unless all the facets of racial prejudice and injustice are approached with dignity and a willingness to learn. She recognized that it doesn’t just take a mere understanding of past tragedies, but a sense of compassion and respect for those impacted. With a new century came well-deserved recognition for Angelou’s impactful work; she received the Presidential Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton (00’), won  3 NAACP Image Awards in Outstanding Literary Nonfiction Work (05’) (07’) (09’), was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama (11’), and was nominated and selected for various Grammy Awards. 

     In the meantime, Angelou decided to settle down in North Carolina where she was the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University from 1982-2014. Doctor Maya Angelou’s life came to a bittersweet end at age 86 on May 28, 2014 in her final resting place of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Maya recalls that she knows “of no other art form that we always use, so the writer has to take the most used, most familiar objects…ball them together and make them bounce…I’m most happy to be a writer.” Angelou used her extraordinary abilities to move mountains, to change the world, to change the way we see. Her last recorded words were, “It has been said often that there are none so blind as those who will not see…there are people who go through life burdened by ignorance because they refuse to see. When they do not recognize the truth that they belong to their community and their community belongs to them … it is because they refuse to see.” Maya Angelou not only inspired writers for generations to come, but provided an avenue for the civil rights movement to express itself in a captivating display of words. One could say Maya Angelou lived many lives within her own, but the truth is she simply never confined herself within the restrictions society placed on her.

 

Additional Resources

 A complete list of Maya Angelou’s books:

https://www.bookbub.com/blog/maya-angelou-books-publishers-blurbs  

To explore more about why February was chosen to commemorate Black History:

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs141p2_015471.pdf

 

Works Cited

Gutenberg, Project. “List of Maya Angelou Works.” List of Maya Angelou Works | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing – EBooks | Read EBooks Online, self.gutenberg.org/Article.aspx?Title=list_of_maya_angelou_works

“Maya Angelou.” Academy of Achievement, 8 Feb. 2021, achievement.org/achiever/maya-angelou/#:~:text=Maya%20Angelou%20was%20born%20Marguerite,small%20town%20of%20Stamps%2C%20Arkansas.&text=Too%20ashamed%20to%20tell%20any,she%20confided%20in%20her%20brother.

“Maya Angelou.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 3 Feb. 2021, www.biography.com/writer/maya-angelou

Moore, Lucinda. “Growing Up Maya Angelou.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Apr. 2003, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/growing-up-maya-angelou-79582387/

“On the Pulse of Morning by Maya Angelou – Poems | Academy of American Poets.” Poets.org, poets.org/poem/pulse-morning

Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, poets.org/poet/maya-angelou

Spring, Dr. Kelly A. “Maya Angelou.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017, womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/maya-angelou

Zorthian, Julia. “Black History Month: How It Started and Why It’s in February.” Time, Time, 29 Jan. 2016, time.com/4197928/history-black-history-month/