Maya Angelou ( (listen) ANN-jəl-oh; born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014) was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim.She became a poet and writer after a string of odd jobs during her young adulthood. These included fry cook, sex worker, nightclub performer, Porgy and Bess cast member, Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinator, and correspondent in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She was also an actress, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. In 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Beginning in the 1990s, she made approximately 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" (1993) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life. She was respected as a spokesperson for Black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of Black culture. Her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide, although attempts have been made to ban her books from some US libraries. Angelou's most celebrated works have been labeled as autobiographical fiction, but many critics consider them to be autobiographies. She made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing and expanding the genre. Her books center on themes including racism, identity, family and travel.
Evidence suggests that Angelou was partially descended from the Mende people of West Africa. In 2008, a DNA test revealed that among all of her African ancestors, 45 percent were from the Congo-Angola region and 55 percent were from West Africa. A 2008 PBS documentary found that Angelou's maternal great-grandmother Mary Lee, who had been emancipated after the Civil War, became pregnant by her white former owner, John Savin. Savin forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. After Savin was indicted for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite the discovery that Savin was the father, a jury found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County poorhouse in Missouri with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, who became Angelou's grandmother. Angelou described Lee as "that poor little Black girl, physically and mentally bruised".The details of Angelou's life described in her seven autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tended to be inconsistent. Critic Mary Jane Lupton has explained that when Angelou spoke about her life, she did so eloquently but informally and "with no time chart in front of her". For example, she was married at least twice, but never clarified the number of times she had been married, "for fear of sounding frivolous"; according to her autobiographies and to Gillespie, she married Tosh Angelos in 1951 and Paul du Feu in 1974, and began her relationship with Vusumzi Make in 1961, but never formally married him. Angelou held many jobs, including some in the sex trade, working as a prostitute and madam for lesbians, as she described in her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name. In a 1995 interview, Angelou said, I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, 'I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.' They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, 'Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.' They can't forgive themselves and go on with their lives.Angelou had one son, Guy, whose birth she described in her first autobiography; one grandson, two great-grandchildren, and, according to Gillespie, a large group of friends and extended family. Angelou's mother Vivian Baxter died in 1991 and her brother Bailey Johnson Jr., died in 2000 after a series of strokes; both were important figures in her life and her books. In 1981, the mother of her grandson disappeared with him; finding him took four years.In 2009, the gossip website TMZ erroneously reported that Angelou had been hospitalized in Los Angeles when she was alive and well in St. Louis, which resulted in rumors of her death and, according to Angelou, concern among her friends and family worldwide. In 2013, Angelou told her friend Oprah Winfrey that she had studied courses offered by the Unity Church, which were spiritually significant to her. She did not earn a university degree, but according to Gillespie it was Angelou's preference to be called "Dr. Angelou" by people outside of her family and close friends. She owned two homes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a "lordly brownstone" in Harlem, which was purchased in 2004 and was full of her "growing library" of books she collected throughout her life, artwork collected over the span of many decades, and well-stocked kitchens. Guardian writer Gary Younge reported that in Angelou's Harlem home were several African wall hangings and her collection of paintings, including ones of several jazz trumpeters, a watercolor of Rosa Parks, and a Faith Ringgold work entitled "Maya's Quilt Of Life".According to Gillespie, she hosted several celebrations per year at her main residence in Winston-Salem; "her skill in the kitchen is the stuff of legend—from haute cuisine to down-home comfort food". The Winston-Salem Journal stated: "Securing an invitation to one of Angelou's Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas tree decorating parties or birthday parties was among the most coveted invitations in town." The New York Times, describing Angelou's residence history in New York City, stated that she regularly hosted elaborate New Year's Day parties. She combined her cooking and writing skills in her 2004 book Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, which featured 73 recipes, many of which she learned from her grandmother and mother, accompanied by 28 vignettes. She followed up in 2010 with her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart, which focused on weight loss and portion control.Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou used the same "writing ritual" for many years. She would wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible, and would leave by the early afternoon. She would average 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she edited down to three or four pages in the evening. She went through this process to "enchant" herself, and as she said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, "relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang". She placed herself back in the time she wrote about, even traumatic experiences such as her rape in Caged Bird, in order to "tell the human truth" about her life. Angelou stated that she played cards in order to get to that place of enchantment and in order to access her memories more effectively. She said, "It may take an hour to get into it, but once I'm in it—ha! It's so delicious!" She did not find the process cathartic; rather, she found relief in "telling the truth".
Marguerite Annie Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya", derived from "My" or "Mya Sister". When Angelou was three and her brother four, their parents' "calamitous marriage" ended, and their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In "an astonishing exception" to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time, Angelou's grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because "she made wise and honest investments".Four years later, when Angelou was seven and her brother eight, the children's father "came to Stamps without warning" and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis.At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone." According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography about Angelou, it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.Shortly after Freeman's murder, when Angelou was eight and her brother nine, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors who would affect her life and career, as well as Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.When Angelou was fourteen and her brother fifteen, she and her brother moved in with their mother once again, who had since moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, Angelou attended the California Labor School. At the age of 16, she became the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She wanted the job badly, admiring the uniforms of the operators — so much so that her mother referred to it as her "dream job." Her mother encouraged her to pursue the position, but warned her that she would need to arrive early and work harder than others. In 2014, Angelou received a lifetime achievement award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials as part of a session billed “Women Who Move the Nation.”Three weeks after completing school, at the age of seventeen, she gave birth to her son, Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson).
Movies & TV shows
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