Maya Angelou: a phenomenal woman

We pay tribute to the inimitable American poet and civil rights icon, who passed away yesterday

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Maya Angelou passed away at 86

Maya Angelou was not Maya Angelou’s name at birth. Like her work, she created it. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson to parents Bailey Johnson and Vivian Baxter, she adapted "Maya" from the childhood nickname given to her by her brother and derived "Angelou" from the surname of her first husband, Anastasios Angelopulos. "Maya Angelou" was initially a stage name under which she performed as a nightclub singer, and toured and recorded a calypso album. She is best known as a writer and poet, publishing ten volumes of poetry and six autobiographical books across her lifetime, with each book chronicling a different period of her life. But she wasn’t simply a writer. At different points in her life she worked as a dancer, a singer, a sex worker, a magazine editor and a streetcar conductor. 

Angelou did what not many can do – she defied stereotypes. She was a multifaceted character who was not defined by hardship alone, yet she faced a lot of hardship. She was sent to live with her grandmother at three years old when her parents divorced, and suffered severe sexual abuse as a child, perpetrated by one of her mother’s boyfriends. When her family found out, the man was tried, jailed and eventually murdered. Angelou suspected that one of her uncles killed him. Feeling responsible for the man’s death, she stopped speaking for five years. She felt her words could be deadly. During those years, Angelou read avidly. She was eventually persuaded to speak again by a family friend.

maya angelou
A young Maya Angelou with a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The hardships continued. She came of age in racially segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where the colour of her skin rendered her a second-class citizen. Aged 14 and on a search for her father, she was homeless for a while, then moved in with her mother in California. She dropped out of high school as a single mother at 16, and moved out of home when her son was just two months old, supporting herself and her child with low-paid jobs. But despite the difficulties, she was deeply loved. Speaking to Oprah Winfrey about her teenage pregnancy in 2013, she reminisced: “The world threw me flat on my face. With this little baby I’m trying to raise, and work, and sing songs and dance, and I would go home to (her mother) Vivian Baxter. She would… call her friends, ‘Girl, you can’t believe, the baby is home!’ She never ever made me feel that I had done the wrong thing.”

Angelou married twice, but was never defined by the men in her life. Neither was she restrictively pigeonholed as a hardened, strong black woman. Her work and public appearances taught us that she was tender, witty, warm, and above all, resilient. Her poems came alive in her performances, many of which are easily accessible on YouTube. When she recited her poetry, the words sparkled with humour and affirmation.

Angelou will be remembered for her politics as well as her writing. A civil rights activist, she lived in Ghana for a while, and was on first-name terms with James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. She moved back to the US to assist Malcolm X’s political organising, but his activism was too much of a threat to America’s white establishment and he was assassinated in February 1965, shortly after her return. King was murdered a few years later.

Her work explored race and racism, sex, poverty and the past. She wrote structural racism into America’s public consciousness. Her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), has often been described as a womanist text. Womanism, a term first coined by fellow black female writer Alice Walker, was deemed a necessary distinction from feminism in order for black women to articulate their experiences of racism, poverty and misogyny. Angelou's experiences as a black woman shaped her life, permeating all that she did. Speaking to The New York Times on the topic of racism in film, she said: “I don’t believe that control of black films must always be in a black person’s hands. But any white person involved in a black story should be respectful of the black person’s sensibilities on the subject.”

It was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that catapulted her into the public eye. She lectured and spoke publicly while concentrating on a number of different projects, including the screenplay and soundtrack for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. It was the first screenplay by an African-American woman to be filmed, and was eventually nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. 

Yesterday, Angelou died at her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina. She was 86. Her work was a beacon of hope for all affected by adversity, and continues to be a lifeline for those in the throes of hardship. "I speak to the black experience," she said, "but I am always talking about the human condition — about what we can endure, dream, fail at and survive."

Listen to Maya Angelou read her poem "Phenomenal Woman" below:

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