Black Women Who Slayed History: Maya Angelou

This Black History Month, we’re highlighting the black woman who helped make our world what it is today. Today, we honor Maya Angelou.

Maya. Maya. Maya. A woman who speaks to so many souls of the world. A woman who knows the power of words. A woman who made everyone feel like a phenomenal woman. A woman who is the true embodiment of love, grace, and power.

Award-winning Maya Angelou (birth name Marguerite Annie Johnson) was born in St. Louis, MO on April 4, 1928. Much more than a poet, she was an actress, author, dancer, performer, director, civil rights activist, historian, and screenwriter. Multi-talented? For a woman of her esteem— more like multidimensional.

Growing up, Maya had a tough childhood. After her parents split, her and her older brother were sent to live in Arkansas with their father’s mother, Anne Henderson. As expected during her time, she went through her fair share of discrimination and racial prejudices in Arkansas. But it wasn’t until her visit back home, where she experienced an event that would affect her in a tremendous way.

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While shortly living back home with her mother Vivian Baxter in Missouri, 8-year-old Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After being arrested and convicted, he was released after just one day in jail. The rapist was murdered by her uncles out of vengeance. Upon her return to Arkansas and completely traumatized by events that occurred, Maya felt that she caused the killing because she spoke up, and was mute for several years. Her brother, Bailey, was the only one to get her to talk after so long.

In later years, Maya moved to San Francisco, CA following her scholarship win to study acting and dance at the California Labor School. At the age of 16 in 1944, she gave birth to first and only child, Guy Johnson, whom she had with a high school boyfriend. She subsequently worked multiple jobs to support the two of them.

Ever wonder how the poet went from Marguerite Johnson to Maya Angelou?

Well, after marrying Greek sailor Anastasios Angelopulos in 1952, she blended her childhood nickname “Maya,” which was given to her by her brother with the shorten version of her husband’s surname.

Maya accomplished so many successes in her life. Her career as a performer began to take off in the mid 50s. She appeared in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave and released her first album, Miss Calypso both in 1957.  She even organized and starred in the musical Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) while she served as a member of the Harlem Writers Guild and civil rights activist.

Fast forward to the 60s, when Maya wanted to pursue other things, lived in Egypt and Ghana working as a freelance writer and editor. Returning to the States, she would come back to create something that produced literary history.

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Urged by her friend, James Baldwin, Maya was encouraged to pin her life experiences that would come to bring her massive success with 1969’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The memoir is the first non-fiction bestseller by an Black woman. This brought her international success.

She has broken ground within art, education, and society. She even was the first Black woman to have a screenplay produced (1973’s Look Away) and received Tony nominations for it.

Later in her career, Maya went to publish much more work including Pulitzer Prize nominated Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die (1971), Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1994), and Great Food, All Day Long (2010)— as well as making her 1998 directorial debut in Down in the Delta.

Upon former president Bill Clinton’s request, Maya recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for his 1993 inauguration. The audio version of the poem even won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album.

The work that she has produced ended with her having the longest running record in chart’s history when she was praised for staying on the The New York Times’ paperback nonfiction bestseller list for two years in ’95!

The incomparable woman passed away after suffering from health issues over the years on May 28, 2014. Her life’s work will continue to stand the test of time.

For more on the incredible Maya Angelou, click here.

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