In Praise Of: Maya Angelou

4th Apr 2011

Angelou has been, in no particular order: a theatre and nightclub performer, a Yale University fellow, a filmmaker, playwright, composer, and activist for women’s rights.

Acclaimed author Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4th, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She rose from a turbulent and troubled background to become one of the most powerful and influential voices in black literature, feminism and thought.

She even worked as a madam very briefly (‘I was hardly ever there. I just sat and counted the money’) and tried to enlist in the Army – but didn’t get in.

She’s been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, a Tony, and numerous Grammy Awards. She moved to Cairo in 1961 to be the associate editor of the Arab Observer. She certainly stood out, being a six-foot, black, non-Muslim, working, American woman.

Maya Angelou is multilingual (she speaks French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti), and a prolific writer – she’s written over thirty bestselling works of fiction, non-fiction and verse. The most famous of them is the acclaimed first volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Virago, 1972).

She wrote the screenplay and score for 1972 film Georgia, Georgia, becoming the first African-American woman to have a script filmed.

Of late she has served on two Presidential committees and holds over 30 honorary degrees; she is currently the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake University.

When Maya Angelou was aged two, her parents Bailey and Vivian Johnson divorced. She and her four-year-old brother (also called Bailey) were sent, addressed and tagged like parcels, to live with their paternal grandmother Anne Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas.

At eight-years-old she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After telling her brother, word got out; the man responsible was later found murdered.

Young Maya blamed the power of her voice for the killing, retreating into a silent world until she was thirteen. However, she attributes her sharp memory to those silent years; despite having written six autobiographies, she’d never kept a diary.

When she was twelve, she went to live with her newly-remarried mother in San Francisco, and was known as ‘the cousin from the South’. She won a scholarship to study Dance and Drama at San Francisco’s Labor School, but dropped out at fourteen.

A lifelong passion for reading was ignited by a local woman, who took the then-still-mute girl to a local school library and instructed her to read every book in the library, which Maya duly did. Just before graduating high school at sixteen in 1944, Maya Angelou gave birth to son ,Guy.

In the early fifties, Maya Angelou moved to New York, working as a nightclub singer and dancer to support her son –all the while, she recalled, known as ‘the girl from the South’.

She toured Africa and Europe as part of the Porgy and Bess cast, and, during the height of the Calypso music craze, wrote and recorded a Calypso album during her return to New York. She then left to take up the assistant editor post in Cairo.

Angelou and Guy moved to Ghana in 1963. She freelanced, taught at the University of Ghana, and performed in various stage productions. After a life of being known as an outsider, she finally felt welcomed and accepted in Ghana as ‘a child coming back home’.

Maya Angelou’s influence is huge. The first of the modern black female memoirists, her tender and lyrical writing crosses all boundaries.

She expresses the hard truths of what it means to be black and female, in a world which isn’t always kind to either, without alienating readers who are neither.

Her most recent work is Letter to My Daughter, a series of letters and essays dedicated to the spirit of the daughter she never had.

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”


  • Georgina says:

    Neither have I. I don’t think I was ready for it either when I first started exploring her work, and sort of let it pass me by. I’d really like to read ‘Letter to My Daughter’, too.