Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

To say that Maya Angelou is an inspiration and one of the most respected people in the entire world is an understatement.  It is fair to say that thousands upon thousands of people have read and recited her poetry, and her sayings and quotes from one of her many books. She has shared her vision as an activist and trailblazer and many world leaders have respected her for it. Perhaps, it is one of many reasons she was the guest speaker at so many schools and colleges all over the world throughout her life.  Many  a dancer has danced at a recital or show performing a dance Ms. Angelou  used to do. And there are songs written by Maya that made singers proud to sing.  Many actors have performed in her plays off and on Broadway.  And, I bet if you ask Oprah Winfrey about Maya Angelou, she will probably say, she was the most glorious woman she ever met.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Marguerite Annie Johnson was an American author, poet, dancer and singer.  In her lifetime she was able to publish seven autobiographies, three books of essays and many books of poetry.  She has been credited with plays, movies and television shows as far back as fifty years.  For her outstanding achievement in many areas, Maya Angelou has received over thirty honorary doctoral degrees.

Maya became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult.  Some of the jobs Maya Angelou had in her life included fry cook, nightclub dancer and performer, cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the days of decolonization.  She was an actor, writer, director and producer of plays, movies and public television programs.  She was even a teacher at one time and taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she held the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies.

Maya Angelou is probably best known for her autobiographies telling the stories of her childhood and early adult experiences.  The first autobiography she wrote, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17.  This book brought Maya Angelou both international recognition and acclaim.

Because Maya Angelou is such an interesting and fascinating person, I would like to literally list some of the incredible things she has done in her life, so you may see why Maya was such an influential person in and of the world!

Maya’s real name is Marguerite.  How she got the name Maya was from her older brother, who she was very close to.   Her brother derived the name “Maya” from “my” or “Mya Sister.”

In the early years, efforts were made to ban Maya’s books from some US libraries, but her works prevailed and are widely used in schools and universities worldwide.

Maya was a respected spokesperson of black people and women.  Her works have been considered a defense of Black culture.

Maya challenged the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing and expanding the genre.  Maya’s books center on racism, identity, family and travel.

Trauma in Maya’s childhood caused her not to speak for five years at the age of 8 years old.  During this period of silence is when Maya developed her love for books, literature and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.

There was a lot of moving, turmoil and family problems in Maya’s young life.  But there was a teacher who helped and finally brought speech back to Maya.  This wise teacher also brought into Maya’s life, the writings of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe, just to name a few authors. These authors and many more, deeply affected Maya’s life and career.

At the age of 14, Maya and her brother moved to Oakland, California, that is where her mother lived at the time.  This was during World War II, Maya attended the California Labor School.  Before graduating, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.

Three weeks after completing school at the age of 17, Maya gave birth to her son, Clyde.

During her struggles in the 1940s, she moved to different California locations. Some of the jobs she had then were nightclub dancer, Creole cook, paint remover at a dent and body shop and many more odd jobs.

In 1951, Maya married Greek electrician, former sailor and aspiring musician, Tosh Angelos, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother.

Maya took modern dance lessons during this time and met dancers and choreographers like Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford.

Maya and Ailey formed a dance team.  They called themselves ‘AC and Rita.’  They performed modern dance at black organizations throughout San Francisco, but never became successful.

After that experience, Maya, her new husband and her son moved to New York City so she could study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, but Maya and her family returned back to San Francisco, a year later.  Maya’s marriage ended in 1954.

Maya danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco where she sang and danced to Calypso music.  That is when she changed her name to Maya Angelou.

In 1954 and 1955, Maya toured Europe with a production of the opera, Porgy and Bess.

Maya began her practice of learning the language of every country she visited.  She became proficient in several languages.

In 1957 Maya cut her first album due to the popularity of Calypso.  The name of that album was “Miss Calypso.”

Maya appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film ‘Calypso Heat Wave.”  In this review, Maya sang and performed her own compositions.

In 1965 Maya became Administrator at the Union of Ghana in Africa and was active in the African-American expatriate community

Maya was the feature editor of The African Review.  She was a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times and she wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana and worked and performed for Ghana’s National Theater.

In Acura, Africa, Maya became close friends with Malcom X during his visit to Africa in the early 1960s.

In 1965, Maya returned to the US to help Malcom X build a new civil rights organization.  Malcom X was assassinated shortly afterward.

Maya continued to be active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Beginning in the 1990s, she made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit and continued to do this inter her eighties.

In 1993, Maya recited her poem, “On The Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.  Maya was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

Maya has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her books of poetry.  She has received a Tony Award for a play she appeared in, “Look Away.”  Maya has received three Grammys for her spoken word albums.  Maya has served on two presidential committees.  Maya has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees in her life.

In 2000, Maya was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

In 2008, Maya received the Lincoln Medal.

In 2011, President Barack Obama presented Maya with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As you can see, there is a lot Maya Angelou did in her life, and I was only scratching the surface.  She accomplished more in one lifetime than ten people could in their lives combined!

Maya Angelou is one of my heroes.  She was a legend and an extraordinary person the world will have trouble replacing…she will be missed forever!

Thought Of The Week:

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.  Don’t make money your goal.  Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” – Maya Angelou


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website