Maya Angelou

Early Life and Influences

Briefly after Maya Angelou’s birth in 1928, her parents divorced. As a result, she and her older brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their father’s mother in Stamps, Arkansas, while their father went to California to seek employment. In the five or so years that Maya and Bailey resided in Stamps, they experienced life in a racially prejudiced and heavily segregated regional society. Segregation in the South was particularly harsh, where very few jobs existed for Black people, and even if they were qualified for a particular position, they were passed on in favour of a less qualified white man.

Schools for Black people were grossly underfunded compared to those for whites, often with poor facilities, ill-trained teachers, and inadequate instructional materials. They worked in the cotton fields or with other wealthy white families and were seldom treated with respect. Maya’s contact with this blatant and unapologetic school of racial inferiority, as well as her sense of shame and displacement in the world, would have a lasting impact on her later works.

Returning to California to rejoin their mother, Maya and Bailey encountered a much less openly racist society than that of the South. However, they were still subject to many prejudices and limitations of opportunity for Black people. At the age of eight, while living in California, Maya was exposed to literature and the arts. A close family friend of their mother, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, took a solid interest in Maya and, as something of a patron to the young girl, provided her with a classical education in literature and grammar.

Mrs. Flowers got Maya to speak again after almost five years of silence by introducing her to the works of great authors and poets. The impression that the works of these great artists made on Maya would later help her express and come to terms with the injustices that she saw in the world. This newfound voice was soon tested, and at a critical time in history, as Maya entered the world of the arts and the civil rights movement.

Childhood in Stamps, Arkansas

Maya Angelou led an eventful life filled with hardships and triumphs. The younger years of her life were spent in Stamps, Arkansas, where she, her brother, and her grandmother (Momma) lived in a small town. It was during these years that “Momma”, as she was affectionately called, provided Maya with a safe environment and much-needed stability during a time of significant racial discrimination.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou photographed Oct.19, 1981, (Lonnie Wilson/Oakland Tribune) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune)

Because of Momma, Maya was largely shielded from the reality of racial discrimination at a young age. Momma’s store provided the Black population of Stamps with a means of escape from the harsh racism they encountered daily. At the same time, Momma would make it known to Maya Angelou that she was exceptional and should not behave submissively, a characteristic many southern Black people expected of each other in the presence of white people. Momma would always give the children encouragement and much-needed discipline during the two years the children spent with her in Stamps.

Momma’s store was the centre of Black social life in Stamps, and although it provided an income just above the poverty line, her strong business skills and even more powerful character made her a respected woman in the town. This was vital for the safety of Maya Angelou and her brother because the race relations between Black and white people in Stamps just after the “crash” in 1929 were empathetic. During these years, Momma steadfastly saved her money patchworking a quilt to pay for a car she felt would be necessary in an emergency regarding the children.

Impact of Segregation on Her Life

The Southern economy was primarily agricultural, and the rigid Jim Crow laws diminished then eliminated the already meagre economic opportunities for Black people. African Americans held menial jobs, such as sharecropping, and worked as domestics for white families. Consequently, a large percentage of Black families in the South were illiterate and lived in poverty. Even then, the most educated and talented Black people had a hard time breaking into professional fields and finding decent work. The Angelous were no exception.

The southern city of Stamps was predominantly a poor and rural community. During the Great Depression, wages for Black people decreased as the price of cotton fell, and only small-time farmers remained in business. The once money-deficient town had become a full-fledged poverty-stricken area. After three years of living with her parents, Maya Angelou and her brother returned to Southern Stamps to improve their relationship with their grandmother and‌ ask for guidance in a time of need.

Introduction to Literature and Poetry

Maya Angelou’s initial introduction to the world of the literary arts is somewhat surprising. As a young single mother with no college education and little experience beyond working as a waitress and a dancer, Angelou was not the likely candidate for a future Pulitzer Prize nominee.

It is no secret that Angelou’s experiences growing up in the segregated South greatly influenced her writing. Her books (namely her most famous work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”) deal heavily with racial oppression and identity themes. Maya Angelou could draw great inspiration from her young adult years as she became involved in the civil rights movement.

In the late 50s, Maya Angelou moved to New York to study African dance and culture. It was here that she became involved in the performing arts and the writing of her first autobiography. After the success of this autobiography, Angelous was approached to write a book about her life told through the eyes of a child. She accepted, and the previously mentioned “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” put her on the map as a literary force to be reckoned with.

Rise to Prominence as a Poet

In 1960, Maya Angelou moved to Cairo, where she served as editor for the Arab Observer. She then lived in Ghana as a freelance writer and feature editor for the African Review for two years. When she returned to the United States in the mid-1960s, blues singer Abbey Lincoln encouraged Angelou to pursue a career in the performance arts. She formed a dance group in San Francisco and was part of a production of Porgy and Bess that travelled throughout Europe.

During this time, Maya Angelou also took a significant role in the civil rights movement; she befriended both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and in 1964, she helped organize the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

After hearing Dr. King speak, Angelou was inspired to continue her writing. With encouragement from her good friend James Baldwin, she wrote her first autobiography. This would be the first of seven autobiographies; as previously mentioned, it is her most successful piece. With “Caged Bird,” Angelou challenges the autobiography’s structure by joining the protagonist’s life with her own.

She could place herself with the young and fully depict the discrimination of the time while still illustrating achievement and the sudden spring of pride for being Black. This notion would be a consistent theme throughout her later works and would play a significant role in her success in the civil rights movement.

Publication of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, published in 1969, is a complex and intensely moving account of a tumultuous early life. It is often considered Angelou’s most outstanding work. The book has been heralded as a testament to the virtues of individual Black women and a solid Black community and as one of the first autobiographies by a 20th-century Black woman to reach a wide general readership. A film adaptation of “Caged Bird” was broadcast on American national television in 1979 and again to a broader audience in 2013.

“Caged Bird” continues to be regarded as her most successful work, lauded for its fictional techniques, its rhythm, and cadences in the tradition of Black oral culture and the profound themes of Angelou’s literary classic: coming-of-age story, self-acceptance, racism, sexism, literacy, and achievement. It remains powerful and relevant even today. The book adds testament to the ability of Black women to survive and flourish, to Angelou’s growth and development, and the growth and development of her son, Guy, in the face of social and personal adversity.

The last section of Angelou’s autobiographical writing was published nearly 30 years after her first autobiography. “A Song Flung up to Heaven” was published in 2002. It depicts events in Angelou’s life from 1964 to 1969. This book completes the story of her life up to when she was “called upon by Martin Luther King” during the start of his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.

Themes and Style in Her Poetry

A significant motif in Angelou’s work is embracing one’s identity, particularly in a racist society. She highlights the impenetrability of African American culture, its art’s timelessness, and its people’s strength. Her work has enormously impacted race relations, and her significant written accomplishments have encouraged a shift in how African Americans are portrayed in literature.

Another theme in Angelou’s poetry is that of power and liberation. In “Still I Rise”, she writes from the perspective of the whole of African American culture and uses literary references to empower and illustrate pride and defiance in its people. This comes across more personally in other poems (“Alone”, “Pn the pulse of morning”), where she aims to be a liberating and empowering figure for her readers and is epitomised by the phenomenal success of her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.

Recognition and Awards

Angelou and her work have been the recipient of numerous recognitions and awards. Some of the most notable honours include a Pulitzer Prize nomination, two NAACP Image Awards for outstanding literary work (one in 2005 and one in 2009), and three Grammy Awards in the “Best Spoken Word” category from 1993 to 2002 for her audio books and poetry.

In 1995, Angelou was presented with the “Hope in Freedom Award” at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference. Two years later, she was honoured by the National Council of Negro Women. In 2002, Angelou was honoured by her “childhood community” in Stamps, Arkansas, where a community centre was dedicated to her.

Angelou has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees. She served on two presidential committees and was presented with President Bill Clinton’s Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts. She was also awarded the Lincoln Medal in 2008. Angelou has been awarded the “Mother of the Year” by the PM Magazine, a “Woman of the Year” by Ladies’ Home Journal, and most recently, she was one of the few Americans and the first woman of colour to participate in the project “America’s Millennium” sponsored by the White House. She was also awarded the Golden Eagle Award for her “Georgia, Georgia” film.

Activism and Civil Rights

As mentioned, Maya Angelou’s autobiographical work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, is widely recognised for representing Angelou’s significant personal and civil rights struggles. Using her personal experiences sets the intimate tone for the book and invites the reader to understand the conflict of her early life. She was a great writer, poet, actress, dancer, and singer. She took part in the Harlem Writers Guild. She was dedicated, determined, and devoted to the civil rights movement. During her work in music, dance, and theatre, she befriended many people who were or had the potential to make influential contributions to the movement.

Angelou’s central role in the civil rights movement was to promote the movement and JF Kennedy’s call for “Black Pride” by encouraging African Americans to be proud of their history and culture. She was to make a living celebration of African American music, dance, and drama. But she never moved too far away from her writing, and her recitations were so popular that she was forced back into writing and telling her stories.

She described her writing as coming about in a very “haphazard” way. She had no set form or subject and wrote as and when things came to mind. Her history had a large bearing on what she ended up writing about. 

Angelou’s work has received critical acclaim for its treatment of her personal development and growth as a Black woman in the US. As stated previously, this is a common theme throughout her autobiographies, and the struggles of her early life are an integral part of her later successes. These works are a chef d’oeuvre of African-American autobiography.

Role in the Women’s Movement

Angelou’s autobiographies also played a crucial role in developing feminist literature as well as developing an essential place within the Black autobiographical tradition. Angelou began to be more involved in civil rights issues in the 160s, and this activism would continue over future decades.

Some of Angelou’s most important work in the 1960s was in Black theatre. During this time, she wrote the play “The Magic McCain,” from there, she moved to New York to focus on a truly diverse career.

In the late 50s, Maya Angelou became involved in a relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make. In 1962, an interracial group of young people in Africa and America, mistakenly thinking they could change the world, began to run a monthly paper. They called it The African Review, and, as stated previously, Angelou was the feature editor. The paper’s material was personal, the hope political, and the tone light. Despite this, the Review folded in 6 months, failing to bring about the revolution.

Angelou returned to Paris, where she attended a meeting with several Africans who had started a multi-racial college. She worked as a market researcher there and used her hard-earned money to fulfil a long-standing dream: to visit a traditional healer in Soweto. During her years there, Maya Angelou was also employed as a journalist and editor for the Arab Observer.

In 1964, still reeling from the death of her friend Medgar Evers, Maya Angelou returned to America to help her brother create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King. This same year, King’s assassination would prove to have devastating effects on Angelou. She was so saddened and shocked by the event that she stopped celebrating her birthday for years.

In 1969, Maya Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, honouring King’s memory. During a trip to California in 1972, friend and author James Baldwin found out about Angelou’s literary hiatus and took her to dinner, urging her to write an autobiography that would be as interesting as a novel. This practical joke would eventually lead to many years of literary success.

Writing Beyond Poetry

In the later 1900s, women had fewer roles and expectations. They were expected to be prim and proper, stay in a routine, and do as they were told. Maya Angelou did not have much empowerment as an African American female, but her actions and works were a stepping stone for the women of the later centuries.

Maya Angelou has been called “America’s most visible black female autobiographer” by scholar Joanne M. Braxton. Her poetry and prose, as mentioned previously, result from her various occupations as a young woman. As Gentle Angelou in the late 50s, she was a singer who performed in cabarets and nightclubs. She spent the rest of the 1960s in Ghana as a writer and then a writer and director for a magazine in Hawaii. Angelou was also featured in the series “Roots” in 1977. These public roles were only the background for her sprouting writing career.

Autobiographical Works

As mentioned earlier, in addition to publishing several poetry books, Maya Angelou also enjoyed a successful career as an actress, dancer, director, and civil rights worker. Her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” has been well received since it was first published in 1969. The book is the beginning of a seven-volume series. Perhaps it is the most well-known and critically acclaimed work of Angelou.

The series traces Maya Angelou’s life from her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, through young adulthood and finally into adulthood. Throughout the series, she chronicles her travels across the United States and abroad and shares her experiences living in various places such as California, St. Louis, and Ghana. While Maya Angelou’s poetry is also autobiographical, the books give the reader a more personal account of her life and are much more revealing than her poetry.

Indeed, the depth of the writing is more substantial, and the poetic prose is nothing less than what is expected of Angelou. I would argue that the series is just an extension of her poetry and that it is through her prose and verse that she demonstrates the essence of her being, and therefore, all the same characterises her metaphoric race. It is undeniable that the books are a significant contribution to Maya Angelou’s challenge to cultural stereotypes.

Fiction and Non-fiction Books

There is a long list of books credited to Maya Angelou. Here are some of the most notable:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

An autobiography chronicling her childhood and early adult years. It is widely regarded as Maya Angelou’s most significant piece of literature. The book has become a classic in the literary world and is often a standard text in high school and college classrooms.

Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

This book of 22 short essays gives the reader a unique glimpse of Maya Angelou’s mind and observations on the world in 1993.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven

This is Maya Angelou’s sixth autobiography. Beginning with her return from Africa (depicted in “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes”) and ending where “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” begins, the book covers some of the most essential parts of Angelou’s life. These include her work in civil rights, which ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Contributions to Film and Television

In 1972, Maya Angelou wrote the original screenplay and musical score for the film “Georgia, Georgia”. Although the film was critically acclaimed, it lost money.

To retain artistic control and vision of the film, Maya Angelou became the first African American woman to have a feature film adapted from her work. She wasn’t the first choice, but Angelou insisted she play the lead role and convinced the producers and directors to reshoot scenes because they disagreed with how a scene turned out.

During that time, African American actresses had little exposure to the acting industry. Angelou’s work was a pioneering act for any actress, especially Black. This film was incorporated with the essence of what Angelou stood for. It was an accurate portrayal of the African American culture and experience through the eyes of an artist.

Influence and Legacy

Maya Angelou was an African American woman with many accomplishments. She published several autobiographies, essays, poems, and children’s books. She accomplished countless achievements, including being given over 50 honorary degrees of doctorates. She accomplished many things during her lifetime and gave the younger generation something to strive for.

Like a few of her pieces, Maya Angelou faced many challenges and obstacles in her lifetime. At an early age, she became San Francisco’s first African American female cable car conductor. This gave her a drive to achieve her dream of working on the streetcars and introduced her to her interest in organised labour trade in Southern Africa.

She has become a historical symbol for everything she did and achieved. This gives the younger generation of this time and age the belief that anything is possible if they set their minds to it. This is what Maya Angelou is best known for today.

Inspiration for Future Generations

Maya Angelou implemented many thriving ideas and continuations of standard quality. Her experience through her works in the 1960s has been an essential tattoo for poise and equality. She taught many people how to be confident and sure of one’s actions. To allow the Black descendants to be affirmative in what they do.

Maya Angelou

5 22 2010 Anstiss Krueck Party

Through the inspiration of Maya’s work, many have become involved in politics and social musings. Her poem “Still I Rise” is a token of the upper striving attitudes of the Black motion. As said in a speech from Dr. Jane Johnson Lewis, the Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, “When I see what she has achieved in the face of the overwhelming odds of racism and sexism, I know that I can rise above the evils that still abound in the world.” Maya’s work has helped induce confidence in other ethnicities to do better for themselves as she did.

Maya Angelou showed what was possible to achieve with a positive attitude. As the “Spelman College Commencement Address” implies, it was a victorious triumph of a young Black woman in the 1960s; she reached the hearts of many youths that what she has done can be achieved through diligence.

Nowadays, it is apparent that much of the youth has been derailed to an unsuccessful future due to their lack of poise and confidence. With the influential quotes and life Maya led, she will teach many young generations that an achieved goal is only possible through hard work and strict confidence in their actions.

Maya Angelou’s Enduring Legacy

Throughout her lifetime, Maya Angelou contributed to countless forms of media and art. Her fame began in the 1950s when she started dancing and acting. She performed in multiple clubs with a 1952-1955 tour of Porgy and Bess and performed in the opera, which was an unexpected turn from her previous engagements.

Maya Angelou is best known for her seven autobiographical works. Of all her endeavours, this role led her to her temporary position in Africa. She became an English teacher in Ghana but did not abandon her life as an artist. Her work as a feature editor for The African Review was a significant turning point in Angelou’s life. The Ghanaian government approached her to help organise the African component of the Americans for Democratic Action.

This position was highly demanding of her as she worked long hours and threw herself into the literature of the African component until she received word of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, which, as previously mentioned, made her return to the United States to rejoin her friend and fellow writer, James Baldwin, and help with the Civil Rights movement.

Maya Angelou’s contributions to literature, civil rights, and the arts have left an indelible mark on American history. Her words continue to inspire and empower people around the world.