Maya Angelou emerged from prostitution and the life of a madam to become a world-renowned poet historic filmmaker, and phenomenal inspiration for Black women creatives.
Before she could rise as a Pulitzer Prize nominee, Marguerite Annie Johnson would need to find her inner Strength. Although she was born in St. Louis, Missouri, she and her older brother Bailey moved to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother when she was about 3 years old after their parents divorced. “Maya” was her nickname.
In the mid 1930s, they returned to St. Louis to live with their mother. At 8 years old, Maya was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. She eventually confided in her brother about what happened, and testified against the man in court. He was beaten to death shortly after being jailed, allegedly by Maya’s own uncles. Terrified by the power of her own voice, despite the circumstances, Maya stopped speaking entirely. She fell mute for five years.
In the absence of speech, Maya fed her love of words with literature. Langston Hughes, William Shakespeare, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Charles Dickens were among the great authors who filled her days. In middle school, a teacher named Mrs. Flowers encouraged her love of poetry and stressed to her the importance of speaking for herself. Maya left silence behind and rose to the top of her eighth-grade class.
Her family moved to San Francisco where she attended George Washington High School and got a scholarship to California Labor School to study drama and dance. At 16 years old, Maya decided that she wanted to be a streetcar conductor simply because she liked the uniforms, but was denied an application because of her race. With her mother’s support, Maya sat in the lobby of the office from open to close everyday for two weeks until she wore down their discrimination. She became the first female African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
She gave birth to her son Clyde Johnson in 1945, and he later changed his first name to Guy. Aside from waitressing and retail jobs, Maya became a prostitute and eventually ran a brothel to support herself and her son. Maya’s dance training and passion for words would save her from the slums, proving she was a star Destined to Make the World Her Stage
In 1951, Maya married her first husband Enistasious Angelos, a Greek sailor, also known as “Tosh.” She’d retain her married surname even after they divorced three years later, changing Angelos to Angelou to make it her own.
Throughout the ‘50s, Maya was a Calypso dancer in nightclubs in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, which inspired her first and last studio album “Miss Calypso,” which was released in 1957. She also spent a year touring Europe, Israel, and Egypt as a cast member of the U.S. State Department’s production of “Porgy and Bess,” teaching modern dance classes along the way.
During the ‘60s, Maya Angelou was very invested in the civil rights movement, keeping close relationships with organizers such as Martin Luther King Jr., and literary icons such as James Baldwin who weren’t afraid to speak on the inequalities of the Black experience in America. She even raised money for and served as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a socio-political organization co-founded by Dr. King.
Maya Angelou served as a freelance writer and editor in Egypt and Ghana, and upon returning to the United States, she was encouraged to share the details of her adventurous life in a book. Initially, she was hesitant, but in 1969 Maya Angelou published her first autobiography, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”
Chronicling the formative years of her life up until the birth of her son, Maya’s seminal work would go on to be an instrumental tool in schools because of it’s poetic and innovative narrative structure. A decade later, the book was adapted into a TV movie for CBS.
Maya Angelou’s ambition and boundless creativity evolved from the stage to the page, and soon she’d Conquer the Screen. Maya first ventured in front of the camera in “Calypso Heat Wave” and as an uncredited dancer in the Academy award winning film adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” in 1959. “I Loves You Porgy,” a popular song from the production, was recorded by Nina Simone and is considered her breakthrough hit.
In March of 1972, her original screenplay “Georgia, Georgia” became the first screenplay written by an African American woman to be produced as a movie. She briefly returned to the stage in 1973 for the Broadway play “Look Away,” which earned her a Tony Award nomination. In the 1977 mini-series “Roots,” Maya played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother, the matriarch from which this dramatization of Alex Haley’s family history from the slave trade to emancipation stems.
In 1978, Angelou published her third volume of poetry “And Still I Rise,” with Random House and nearly four decades later the documentary “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” paid tribute to the iconic volume and legendary woman.
Her next onscreen role came in 1993 as Aunt June in “Poetic Justice” starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. Maya Angelou also penned the verses that made Justice poetic. Some of her later appearances in front of the camera include “Moesha,” “Sesame Street,” and “Madea’s Family Reunion.”
Maya Angelou’s directorial film debut “Down in the Delta” premiered in 1998. She became one of the first African American women to join the Directors Guild of America. This film was also one of Esther Rolle from “Good Times” last roles before she passed away only 3 months after it premiered.
Maya published 7 autobiographies in total, each spanning distinct chapters of her life. She also won Grammy awards for the spoken word recordings of “On The Pulse Of Morning,” “Phenomenal Woman,” and “A Song Flung Up To Heaven”
February 15, 2011, Former President Barack Obama honored Maya Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On May 28, 2014, Maya Angelou passed away in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Maya Angelou was a woman of many, many talents, but it’s her breathtaking poetry that has earned her global respect and fame. From President Bill Clinton’s inauguration to the 1993 Million Man march in Washington, her words were often called upon to touch and inspire millions.