Angelou, Maya (b. 1928), autobiographer, poet, playwright, director, producer, performance artist, educator, and winner of the Horatio Alger Award. A prolific author, with a successful career as a singer, actress, and dancer, Maya Angelou became one of America's most famous poets when she stood before the nation to deliver her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton's inauguration on 20 January 1993. At sixty-four years old, she was the first black woman to be asked to compose such a piece, and the second poet to be so recognized after the pairing of Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy in 1961. Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, but raised in Arkansas, Angelou was a natural choice for the forty-second president and fellow Arkansan. The poem reflects a theme that is common to all of Angelou's published works, namely that human beings are more alike than different, and that a message of hope and inclusion is a most inspiring dream and ideal, something to be savored at such a moment of political change. She writes of the triumph of the human spirit over hardship and adversity. Her voice speaks of healing and reconciliation, and she is a willing symbol for the American nation on the eve of the twenty-first century.
The great-granddaughter of a slave-born Arkansas woman, Angelou has had a rich and varied life, and her serial autobiography intertwines in a harmonious way her individual experiences with the collective social history of African Americans. As she recounts in the first volume of her serial autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Angelou spent her first three years in California. Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a navy cook and her mother, Vivian Baxter, a glamorous and dynamic woman, was a sometime nightclub performer and owner of a large rooming house in San Francisco in the 1940s. When Angelou's parents divorced in the early 1930s, her father sent her and her brother Bailey by train, with name tags on their wrists, to live with his mother, Momma Henderson, who ran the only black-owned general store in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou writes eloquently of the customs and harsh circumstances of life in the segregated pre-civil rights South, and of the dignity and mutual support that rural blacks extended to one another during the Depression. After Stamps came time in St. Louis with her mother's family, the discovery of urban greed and alienation, and her rape at age eight, a trauma that left her mute for several years. Upon her return to the South, she buried herself in the cocoon of her grandmother's store and in her imagination, and read widely. Books became her lifeline and prepared the terrain for her artistic and literary career. She moved back to California as a teenager, graduated from high school, and gave birth to her only child, Guy Johnson, himself a poet. In the 1960s, Angelou was active in the civil rights movement in the United States and abroad, and became briefly involved with African activist Vusumzi Make. She has been married and divorced.
By the time she was in her early twenties, Angelou had worked at a variety of odd jobs, as a waitress, a cook, and a streetcar conductor, flirting briefly with prostitution and drug addiction. She then worked as a stage performer, establishing a reputation among the avant-garde of the early 1950s, and appearing in Porgy and Bess on a twenty-two-nation tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department in 1954–1955. She studied dance with Martha Graham. Off-Broadway, she acted in Jean Genet's The Blacks in 1960. She worked as an associate editor for the Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, in 1961–1962 and as a writer for the Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation in 1964–1966. She appeared in Mother Courage at the University of Ghana in 1964 and made her Broadway debut in Look Away in 1973. She directed her own play, And Still I Rise, in California in 1976. In 1977, she had a part in the television adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots and received an Emmy Award nomination for best supporting actress. She has lectured on campuses, been a guest on many talk shows, and continues to be an extremely popular speaker. She is currently the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Her autobiographical fictions include Gather Together in My Name (1974) and Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), which received moderate critical praise; and The Heart of a Woman (1981) and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), which were acclaimed as important works covering exciting periods in African American and African history, the civil rights marches, and the era of decolonization. These narratives survey the difficulties and personal triumphs of a remarkable woman with a keen understanding of the power of language to affect change, and of the role of “image making” in the self-representation of groups who have been historically oppressed. In her interview with Claudia Tate, Angelou acknowledged her debt to the black women writers who were her predecessors, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Zora Neale Hurston in particular, and to her friend James Bald-win who encouraged her to write after hearing her childhood stories. Angelou's personal experiences typify the changes that have occurred in America in the course of her lifetime. She consciously strives to be the kind of writer who brings people and traditions together and who appeals to the nobler sentiments of her readers. Her works have a profound resonance with a long tradition that begins with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave narratives. Her style captures the cadences and aspirations of African American women whose strength she celebrates. She has been instrumental in helping refo-cus attention on black women's voices.
- Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work, 1983, pp. 1–38.
- Selwyn Cudjoe, “Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans, 1984, pp. 6–24.
- Lynn Z. Bloom, “Maya Angelou,” in DLB, vol. 38, Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, eds. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, 1985, pp. 3–12.
- Françoise Lionnet, “Con Artists and Storytellers: Maya Angelou's Problematic Sense of Audience,” in Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self Portraiture, 1989, pp. 130–166.
- Mary Jane Lupton, Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion, 1998
Questions to consider for writing:
Many of us, women and men, black or white, have been in situations in which we felt like Angelou subservient – in the presence of someone we interpreted as a threat to our well-being. Looking back at such servile situations and, after having read this essay, do you now think you were justified in your obsequiousness?
How does the use of dialogue highlight the contrast between the black and white characters? How does this contrast strengthen the narrative?